Whatever happened to Brexit?

By Meryle Secrest – – Tuesday, April 16, 2019


As a former Brit — I was born and educated in Bath — I have followed the U.K.’s Brexit befuddling negotiations to leave the with growing concern, even anxiety.

Over time, Britain’s original compact with Europe that was limited to trade has become an ambitious union to unite all of Europe under one government, one flag, one set of laws, one common goal and weaken, if not dissolve altogether, all the pesky national differences. Britain is now part of that as well. This was the beginning of a very big mistake.

Since that happened, the consequences to Britain’s centuries-old self-determination have been sinking in. First, there was the unwelcome discovery that they had also taken on a vast and meddling bureaucracy that was insinuating its tentacles into every corner of British life even (it was said) the size of jars for homemade jam in church fairs.

More unwelcome news was the fact that British courts no longer reigned supreme, but were subject to jurisdiction by a European supreme court in another foreign country: Luxembourg. But perhaps the most unpleasant piece of news was that the British could no longer control their own borders but must submit to the dictates of Europe. No ifs, ands or buts.

The British are generous with their social programs, so naturally everyone wants to live there. That has presented a problem. Most of Britain will fit roughly into an area the size of Michigan, and the country is packed already: 66 million people living on 65 million acres. The situation worsened in the decade following 1997, when 2 million people moved in. That’s a lot, even for Michigan.

Arguments pro and con during the Brexit referendum in 2016 focused largely on this pressing issue. Others had to do with self-government, plus the enormous cost of annual membership. Trade was hardly mentioned. The Leavers won handily. They wanted out. So it is baffling to discover that in the present contorted wrangling over “Leave” terms, in which deadlines are being made, only to be broken again and again, the word immigration is never even mentioned.

Trade is the only issue, except perhaps the border fight between Eire and Northern Ireland, which nobody understands, along with the unthinkable prospect of just, well, plain old leaving that the majority voted for. Although the British government has had three years to prepare, leaving the is universally termed “crashing out.”

This is considered so economically catalycsmic that it must never be allowed. To make sure, Parliament has voted that one down for good, thereby removing its single bargaining chip with the . Sensing blood, the has imposed, and will not budge from, draconian terms. How can it be that the politicians and the press seem deternmined to ignore the issues that most concerned l7 million voters in the first place? What is one to conclude from this collective amnesia?

Theresa May, the British prime minister, is a case in point. The fact is, the New Statesman magazine revealed, she made brilliant arguments against Brexit, if sotto voce, three years ago. July, 10, 2016. We guessed it. In her heart, she was a Remainer. Yet, good soldier that she was, she would do the majority’s will. Even her staunchest supporters concede she has been a terrible negotiator, throwing away every advantage. Those conniving negotiators were just too clever for her.

There is an alternative explanation. Could it be that Mrs. May’s lack of zeal, even her secret wish, was to fail? It was all subconscious, of course. She could honestly say, “it can’t be done.” Or could it be that her bumbling was designed to fail? Are subterranean financial interests behind all this? Could the answer be “Follow the money?” Meanwhile, the delays go on and on. The British public has a short memory. They will soon forget what they voted for.

What, Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England wanted to know, was wrong with “crashing out?” The whole issue had been wildly distorted. In his (impeccable) opinion, the long-term economic results would be the same, whether Britain stayed or left. And these factors had to be weighed against all the central imperative of self government.

One thinks fondly of Margaret Thatcher, who used such stirring speeches to remind the British of their noble heritage. She would have been delighted to see the demonstration by the thousands of “Leave” voters who massed on March 29, the day that the British should have left the and didn’t. Did they, like their counterparts in Paris on the Champs Elysees, rage and spit, break windows, hurl bricks, attack the police, set fires?

Not a bit. They linked arms, hoisted toddlers on their shoulders, and sang “Land of Hope and Glory” before drifting off to pubs to lift a tolerant pint. It would take more than a few bureaucrats in to stamp out their culture and their hard-won rights. In the end they would do what they always have. They would muddle through.

• Meryl Secrest is the author of the forthcoming “The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti: IBM, the CIA, and the Cold War Conspiracy to Shut Down Production of the World’s First Desktop Computer” (Knopf).

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