How does a political system handle an existential crisis? The UK House of Commons has for a second time rejected Theresa May’s deal. Its own decision to open negotiations for withdrawal under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (the EU Constitution) allows a two-year period for negotiations. The British Parliament voted to withdraw on March 29, 2019, as a response to the Referendum of June 2016, which voted to leave by a majority of two million in a total vote of 34 million (74 per cent turnout).
There are now only days left to make a decision. By the time you read this, two more decisions would have been made. One is whether the UK should exit without a deal. The government hopes this would be rejected as a no-deal exit would prevent all trade between the EU and UK going through with zero tariff. Long delays will strangle the economy as it depends on daily imports of fruit, vegetables and medicines.
The second vote on Thursday, March 14, will be to seek an extension of the deadline beyond March 29. This is also likely to be rejected. So by Friday there will be a return to the rejected deal being put to vote for a third time. Remember that the government is defeated despite its slim majority in the Commons. To bolster the majority, the Conservative Party got into a coalition-type deal with a small party from Northern Ireland. They had been promised extra public spending in return for votes. Alas, the discipline in the UK is not like in India. MPs are free to vote against their party.
It is quite possible that within a fortnight, the UK could crash out of the EU without a deal. Let me set aside the economic issues. How is it that a mature democracy can get into such a disaster with open eyes? The shortest answer is the Tyranny of History. The present crisis can be blamed on a number of old hangovers. First is the loss of the Empire, which happened in the 50 years between 1947 and 1997. The UK joined the EEC (now the EU) in a post-imperial decline phase. But it was also proud that it had rescued Europe from Hitler. It could never feel equal to the rest. It never felt at home within Europe if it could not be top dog. So it remained semi-detached, not joining the free borders (Schengen) agreement or the Euro and complained about its budgetary contribution.
The Conservative Party was divided between Eurosceptics led by Mrs Thatcher and Europhiles in her Cabinet. She failed to win leadership in 1990. This has led to a 30-year-old civil war in the Conservative Party between the two factions. The Labour Party was originally against entering the European Common Market. The Hard Left was strongly against. But in a referendum in 1975, Harold Wilson led the bulk of the party to vote for it. That triggered a long war of the Hard Left against the rest for control of the party. The Hard Left was defeated in the 1980s. It came back 30 years later when Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party.
History has crippled politics. But don’t worry. The UK remains the fifth largest economy in the world.
(This article was written before UK Parliament voted to delay Britain’s departure until at least June 30)