March 29 came and went without any change in the U.K.’s relationship with the EU. For now, the U.K. remains an EU member. But the U.K. Parliament has now rejected the proposed Withdrawal Agreement for a third time. Unless there is a major political shift in the next two weeks, the country is on course for no-deal Brexit on April 12.
For the Leave supporters who gathered outside Parliament on March 29, April 12 can’t come soon enough. They had planned a celebration, but instead found themselves protesting at what they see as betrayal by the U.K. Government. Furiously angry, they are now worried that Parliament could try to secure a much longer delay or perhaps a second referendum.
They have reason to be worried. On Monday, April 1, Parliament will vote on a set of alternative proposals. The votes won’t commit the government to any particular course of action, but they will indicate what Parliament’s preferred outcome might be. The proposals likely to be up for consideration include a permanent customs union, which Theresa May has previously ruled out but is implied in the Political Declaration. There is also likely to be a vote on whether to hold a second referendum to “confirm” Parliament’s eventual choice.
However, the previous set of “indicative votes,” taken on Wednesday March 27, resulted in no majority for anything. True, Parliament resoundingly rejected no-deal Brexit, but it was completely unable to agree on what alternative form Brexit should take, or even if it should happen at all. If this second set of votes is equally inconclusive, then no-deal Brexit it will be, unless by some miracle Mrs. May manages to persuade Parliament to vote for her ghastly deal after all.
British business representatives are very worried by the prospect of no-deal Brexit in two weeks’ time. Josh Hardie, Deputy Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), described it as a “nightmare” and warned that “the U.K.’s reputation, people’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake.”
Indeed, it appears that Brexit brinkmanship is already adversely affecting the U.K. economy. On March 29, the CBI released its quarterly business growth survey. For the fifth quarter in a row, firms reported flat or falling business activity. Feeding into this were worrying statistics, including some from other business groups:
- The CBI’s Financial Services Survey showed that optimism plummeted at the fastest rate since the depths of the Financial Crisis in the three months to March. Additionally, business volumes and employment have fallen over the last quarter.
- The CBI’s Distributive Trades Survey showed retail sales volumes fell sharply (-18%) in the year to March, the fastest contraction in 17 months and marking a four-month run in which sales have not grown.
- The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders pointed to car production sinking to a 6-year low.
- According to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, employers’ confidence in the UK’s economic prospects hit their lowest level ever in March
- The Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) latest survey showed falling revenues in the first quarter of the year – at an all-time high. Export expectations for the next three months also fell to their lowest point in the FSB small business index’s nine-year history, while 90 per cent of firms paused recruitment.
Rain Newton-Smith, the CBI’s Chief Economist, said:
The chaos at Westminster is having a dire impact here and now on our economy, with private sector activity stuck in a slump.
She called for Parliamentarians to “get their act together” to protect jobs and livelihoods.
But many Leave supporters don’t agree that no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for British industry. Lord Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England and a leading Brexiteer, told London’s Sunday Times that although there would be “short-term dislocation” from a no-deal Brexit, he did not think the long-term economic cost would be very different from staying in the EU. Lord King is an economist, so his words carry weight – at least with Leave supporters.
Personally, I struggle to see why the opinion of the man who failed to see the massive buildup of leverage that led to the financial crisis should be regarded as more authoritative than the views of British business people. But then I am not a Leave supporter.
However, Brexit has never really been about economics. “Take Back Control,” the slogan of the Vote Leave campaign, appealed to hearts, not minds. It is Britain’s equivalent of “Make America Great Again.”
Many of those who voted for Brexit were born in the post-war period when the British Empire was unravelling. They grew up believing in the U.K.’s international supremacy, and they think that membership of the EU has undermined it. For them, leaving the EU will enable the U.K. to recover its lost power. Some think the Brexited U.K. can lead the world to a free trade paradise. Others see the U.K. as leader of a group of predominantly white, English-speaking nations that were formerly U.K. colonies – Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
A significant proportion of Leave supporters also want to close the borders, kick out the “foreigners” and make Britain “British” again, which by and large means restricting it to people who are white, Christian and born in the U.K. There is no denying that Brexit has given a platform to the racist, Islamophobic and colonialist elements among the British. It is no accident that the protest on March 29 featured the far-right English activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, better known as “Tommy Robinson.”
Those who believe that Brexit will restore Britain to its former glory are unconcerned about any short-term pain. They believe that in the longer term it will all be worth it. And they will brook no delay, because this simply delays the time when Great Britain, cleansed of its unworthy elements, will once again “rule the waves.”
Perhaps the epitome of Brexiteer jingoism is the proposal for a new Royal Yacht. On March 29 (yes, that date again), a U.K. government minister claimed that it could play a “real role in driving international trade.” He continued:
President Obama said there were…only two people he admired in this world, Nelson Mandela and the Queen. Absolutely, he was right about both of those extraordinary global political giants. A new royal yacht would be something we could unite behind.
I wonder what he envisages. The Queen – aged 92 – sailing the Brexitannia around the world, dishing out tea and scones to the nabobs while the natives kowtow? You couldn’t ask for clearer evidence that Brexit is a cargo cult. But he will be one of those voting for alternative proposals on April Fool’s Day. How many more of Britain’s parliamentarians have views like his?
This is a Parliament of Fools. So far, they have shown neither the sense nor the responsibility to abandon their own narrow ideologies and cooperate for the greater good. Unless they wake from their dream this April Fool’s Day, the racists and neo-colonialists will win, and this farce will end in tragedy – for Britain, for Europe, and for the world.
The U.K.’s "Parliament Of Fools" – Forbes