LONDON (Analysis) — It is official. The end-of-March deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has come and gone. But Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government has failed to reach a deal and has controversially postponed the economically and geopolitically seismic separation, known to the world as Brexit.
Britain was a relative latecomer to the European Union (joining in 1973) and anti-EU sentiment began to rise considerably after the economic crisis of 2008. In a bid to fend off a challenge from the Euro-skeptic right wing UK Independence Party, then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised in 2013 that if his party won the next general election he would schedule a vote on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. In June 2016 the U.K. voted 52 to 48 percent to leave.
A national humiliation
In the wake of the embarrassing referendum defeat, Cameron resigned and was replaced by the equally pro-EU Theresa May, who was tasked with leading the country out of the union she campaigned to keep.
Brexit has always been a highly polarizing question inside the U.K., and May has failed to satisfy virtually anyone in either the “leave” or “remain” camps. Her negotiations have also been widely seen as comically incompetent and unprepared. Former Dutch Member of the European Parliament Michiel van Hulten claims the Netherlands has watched proceedings with a mixture of “bemusement and bewilderment.” “On one level it’s entertaining, great spectacle. A pantomime you can’t stop watching…we love British comedy. Except this isn’t Monty Python, it’s your politicians,” he noted.
The prime minister has suffered a series of historic and embarrassing parliamentary defeats and polls show that, while Britons do not want Brexit to be delayed, 90 percent of the country believes May’s mismanaged negotiations have caused a “national humiliation.”
It would be customary for a prime minister to resign following even one defeat as substantial as May has suffered. Yet these are not normal circumstances. May has offered to resign to push a Brexit deal through. But this was rejected, as her party prefers her to continue on as a “national embarrassment” rather than suffer the likelihood of a general election where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn might become prime minister. A poll this weekend found Labour support has soared to a five-point lead over the Conservatives, consistent with other recent studies. A series of government ministers and members of parliament told the conservative Daily Telegraph that they would be “annihilated” in a general election, while right-wing pundits fear Corbyn’s victory is just a matter of time. Nevertheless, there is great speculation around the media that May will call an election this week, the unfavorable odds notwithstanding..
Corbyn represents a politics greatly different from those of his Labour predecessors Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. A political outsider and avowed anti-capitalist, Corbyn was elected in a landslide by a Labour membership fed up with the party’s 30-year rightward drift.
He proposes to scrap college tuition fees; greatly increase workers’ rights; nationalize large swaths of the economy, including water, transport, energy, and the Royal Mail; increase taxes on the wealthy and end homelessness. He is also a committed anti-imperialist and led the resistance to the Iraq War in the United Kingdom. These policies helped Labour to one of its greatest electoral performances, overcoming a 20-point deficit in the polls to completely wipe out the Conservative majority in the 2016 general election.
Corbyn has been relentlessly attacked in the media as a “terrorist,” a “laughing stock” and a “traitor.” One academic study of the media coverage of him has a section entitled “delegitimization through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks.” The BBC’s own study found its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, who claims she would “die in a ditch for impartiality,” guilty of carrying out a biased, partial and systemic attack against him. Thus, despite the attempt to discredit him, Corbyn and his “unashamedly socialist plan to transform Britain” present a “sliding doors moment” – where Britain will choose one future and forever reject another – according to CNN.
The end of the United Kingdom?
But a socialist at Number 10 Downing Street is not even the most radical change to the U.K. that could be set in motion by the end of this week. Brexit has also made the breakup of the United Kingdom a strong and imminent possibility. Two-thirds of Scots who are undecided about independence believe Brexit makes it more likely, and a majority would vote for such independence given a no-deal Brexit. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to announce a new referendum on independence imminently, with the last attempt having been defeated narrowly in 2014.
Likewise, polls show Brexit has made a united Ireland distinctly more likely in the minds of its citizens. Support for Irish reunification has surged in Ulster, and is now neck and neck with unionist sentiment. Meanwhile, several U.K. cabinet members have admitted that a no-deal Brexit and the subsequent hard border between the north and south of the Emerald Isle would lead to an independence referendum there too.
Part of the problem is that, while the United Kingdom voted 52 to 48 to leave the EU, support was not equal across its four constituent nations. Northern Ireland voted to remain while Scotland voted almost two to one in favor of the status quo, with majorities in all 32 of its local authority areas rejecting Brexit. However, England’s dominant position in the union meant Brexit narrowly carried the day. Indeed, one of the key arguments against Scottish independence in 2014 was that it could only be sure of remaining a member of the EU if it stayed within the United Kingdom. It turns out that this was not the case after all.
The United Kingdom is at a crossroads. The country stands between greatly differing future scenarios, including its own dissolution. By the end of this week it is distinctly possible that the future path the country will take will be irrevocably chosen.
Top Photo | A remain in the European Union, anti-brexit sculpture is driven past the Houses of Parliament in London, Dec. 10, 2018. Matt Dunham | AP
Alan MacLeod is an academic and writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His book, Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting was published in April.