By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 06, 2019
“If you compared Britain to a sphinx, the sphinx would be an open book by comparison. Let’s see how that book speaks over the next week or so.”
—Jean-Claude Juncker, President, European Commission
Last Friday Britain was supposed to leave the European Union (EU) after which the land, as Boris Johnson and his Tory friends assured us, was supposed to be flowing in milk and honey. March 29 has come and gone. On that very day the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to leave the EU for a third time. This left British citizens asking: “How did we go so perilously wrong?”
It is not like Britain economy is going to collapse tomorrow–it is still the world’s fifth–largest national economy–but the voters placed the country in a delicate position when it voted to leave the EU without thinking of the consequences of its action. Today it is paying the price for its ill-thought out decision.
The differences were small between those who wanted to remain and those who wanted to leave the EU, but the results were binding on the country. Voting as it did, Britain decided to affirm a past (“a land of hope and glory”) rather than to pursue a future course with a larger economic unit that was finding its place in the world. English nationalists won the day but alienated its younger citizens in the process.
Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, “the pound has fallen by as much as 17% against the euro and 29% against the dollar, although it has recovered somewhat since then.” (BBC News, October 1, 2018). According to the Office for National Statistics, GDP growth has slowed from 2% to 1.4%
If or when Britain leaves the EU its economy may slide to the seventh largest in the world and London may lose its edge as one of the international financial centers of the world. Britain may see house prices fall by about 30 percent, its unemployment doubled–it’s now 4 percent–and inflation may rise to about 6.5 percent. The contraction of the European economy is not necessarily good news for the UK since the EU accounts for almost half of UK exports. To add to its woe, UK’s manufacturing output contracted the most since December 2012.
One does not know how these outcomes have tempered the views of the Brexit hardliners, but their ruthless manipulations are beginning to show. Theresa May, British prime minister, was not among the Brexit hardliners but was left holding the bag when Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister, and Michael Grove, the environment secretary, betrayed one another and dropped the ball in her court.
Mrs. May did the best she could but is not up to the task. Philip Stephens described her as “a stubborn, weak and blinkered leader” (Financial Times, March 29.) Now that the British Parliament has rejected her plan for a third time Mrs. May has no choice but to follow her own resolute logic: “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended to in order to do what is right for our country and our party” (Financial Times, March 28).
On Thursday, the Brexit hardliners began to change their strategy. Smelling blood and feeling that any one of them could become the prime minister, they began to change their tune. Johnson, who said that Mrs. May’s deal “had strapped a suicide vest around the country,” and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said Mrs. May’s plan would turn Britain into “a slave state” (New York Times, March 28) another hardliner, were willing to support Mrs. May’s plan. Political opportunism had won the day again.
One is not too sure if naked ambition and pure political chicanery led to the political impasse in Britain today. Sometimes when we talk about political principles and ideological purity it comes down to what positions are likely to allow us to achieve our political ends. We see an identical scene playing out in Trinidad and Tobago where the United National Congress is bending over backward to gain whatever political advantage it can by supporting Donald Trump’s position on the Venezuelan issue.
Britain is in a pickle. On Wednesday, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, indicated the EU was willing to give Britain more time if it “wishes to rethink its Brexit strategy” (New York Times, March 27). After Friday’s vote, Tusk announced that he would be calling a council meeting of the European Council April 12, putting more pressure on the British Parliament to come up with a solution.
Tomorrow (Monday) the British Parliament goes at it again. One should not hold one’s breadth. Anything can happen. But Friday night’s vote suggests that Britain is moving closer towards an April 12 withdrawal from the EU without an agreement. This is not a good sign for Britain but it tells us how politics (sorry, poly-tricks) are played. Whether one is in London or Port of Spain, politics and political principles come down to what is good for me and my advancement, the people be damned.
The Brexit confusion reminds us of Humpty Dumpty’s great fall that resulted in a scenario where “All the king’s horses and all the kings’s men,/Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Things may not be that dire, but whatever happens, it will take Britain a decade to rescue itself from the quagmire into which it has fallen through no one else’s fault but its own.