Brexit, Explained

By the time you read this, there is an excellent chance that Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson has resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. At the time of writing, there is much speculation about which specific constitutional mechanic he will use to do so, but it doesn’t really matter. Being Prime Minister is literally the only thing that Johnson has ever wanted in his entire life, it is the thing that he has schemed and betrayed and lied to get, and now that he has it, he’s discovered to his dismay that he’s as predictably bad at it as he is at everything else he’s ever attempted. Despite his short period in power, Johnson has already set several new records: he is the only Prime Minister to never have won a vote in Parliament, the Prime Minister who holds the longest uninterrupted streak of Parliamentary defeats, and (this is my personal favourite) the only Prime Minister who has lost his Parliamentary majority while he was in the midst of a speech. There is a nonzero chance that he will, by the time you read this, have called a motion of no confidence in himself. Johnson is a buffoon, and Brexit has made a farce of his career.

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was not a buffoon, but Brexit made a farce of her career likewise. Her predecessor, David Cameron, was the last leader of the Conservative party to win an election, and was a fairly shrewd operator. Brexit made a farce of him, too, ending not only his career but also any chance of him maintaining influence as a party elder. Brexit is the great devourer of the British political Right. It has ended many careers. It has split families, ended friendships and, tragically, resulted in the assassination of an MP.

How did we get here? It’s an interesting story.

A Short Summary of British Party Politics
Although some of them would deny it, the British are European; and like all Europeans their politics is that of numerous smaller parties which must form coalitions if they want power. Unlike most Europeans, however, their elections use First Past the Post rather than Proportional Representation, which means that the two largest parties are clumsily large. They are large enough, in fact, to have their own internal factional disputes:

To simplify, the Conservative party can be divided between xenophobic and capitalist wings. The xenophobes support capitalism to the extent that it rewards the wealthy, who are often British, and harms the poor, who are often foreigners. The capitalists support xenophobia to the extent that it gives them convenient laws robbing migrant workers (upon whom Britain depends) of rights, and gives them a convenient excuse to lobby against international financial-transparency and anti-tax-evasion legislation. However, these two wings disagree on a great deal, and of late this disagreement has become far more vicious than anything involving outsiders.

Likewise, the Labour party can be simplified as being divided between socialist and social democrat wings. The socialists (with whom I identify) believe in bringing down capitalism and creating a state in which the workers own the means of production, the unachievable nature of which is apparent to everyone except them. The social democrats believe in keeping capitalism, but making it slightly nicer and slightly more under control, so that it doesn’t need to be brought down. This is equally unachievable, but less widely understood as such. These two wings have traditionally ignored one another, each trying to pretend that the party is theirs and theirs alone.

Each of these parties is unelectable unless both wings are in alignment. Conservative capitalists and Labour social democrats are traditionally in charge of their respective parties; indeed, they are often surprised to remember that the other wing exists at all, and offended when that wing expects its concerns to be listened to.

Some other parties exist. Three of those should be taken seriously:

Firstly, there is the Brexit party, or the UKIP. These are technically two separate parties, but are largely identical. Both are far-Right groups which have formed from disillusioned Conservative xenophobes and which have been run as cults of personality by a millionaire called Nigel Farage. When Farage left the UKIP and founded the Brexit party, he took most of their voter base with him. The Brexit party is not important in terms of number of votes, as they have comparatively few. They are, however, important inasmuch as they threaten to create a new home for the xenophobic wing of the Conservative party and therefore to split the votes of the Right.

In recent years, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has more or less completely run Scotland. They are enthusiastically pro Scottish independence; their other policies include a welfare state, transphobia, and whatever else they think Scottish people want to hear at any given moment. The SNP is a bit player but has enough votes to be a useful ally of convenience. They hate the Conservatives like poison, which puzzles the Conservatives. Labour hates them like poison, which puzzles the SNP.

Lastly and most importantly, the Liberal Democrats are a party of refuge for centrists alienated from the two large parties. For many years they have taken in Conservatives when that party veers further to the Right, and Labour members when that party veers further to the Left. For many years it has been received wisdom that the Lib Dems would self-destruct in an instant if they were forced to decide what they actually stood for, rather than merely mouthing milquetoast platitudes about how nice it would be if everyone was nice. However, since Brexit became a political issue, the Lib Dems have discovered that they do have an issue they can unite around: they are fanatically pro-EU.

The Runup
By 2007, Britain was coming to the end of a long period of Labour rule. The social democrat wing of the Labour party had long been in ascendance, combining friendliness to investors and flaky financiers with a generous welfare state. This was very expensive, which meant that when capitalism ended in the great crash of 2007-08, it was all over. Labour were tired and out of ideas after more than a decade of rule, and had alienated much of their core electorate with the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Inevitably, in the 2010 election, the Conservative party under David Cameron swept Labour aside. However, they did not win a complete majority: a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was necessary. The resulting government cut public spending to the bone to appease investors (it was the early 2010s and many countries were flirting with austerity policies which in hindsight were disastrous), while running a schizophrenic social policy to appease both the Conservative voter base and the Lib Dem one. Predictably, this served only to alienate both of those groups.

In 2011, a referendum was held on whether or not to adopt Proportional Representation as a voting system. In 2014, a referendum was held on whether or not Scotland should become independent. Both of these referendums returned a verdict in favour of the status quo. This led to several assumptions becoming mainstream: that referendums would always return a verdict in favour of the status quo, that promising people a referendum on something was a good alternative to promising them actual policy on that thing, and that referendums were therefore politically “safe.” These assumptions, as we shall see, became disastrous.

Many Scottish people are still furious about the 2014 referendum, because a great many lavish promises were made by the UK government to get them to vote not to leave, and these promises were largely forgotten the day after the election.

Meanwhile, a weird person had appeared on the far Right fringes of British politics, an eccentric called Nigel Farage, whose breathtaking financial dishonesty was matched only by his breathtaking political dishonesty. Farage’s entire operation consisted of pointing at the damage that the 2007 crash had done and saying words to the effect of “foreigners did it, and if we kick out all the foreigners it can’t happen again.” While this was obviously a lie, it became popular because people were desperate to believe that something, anything could prevent the great crash happening again.

The 2015 election was revealing in many ways, most notably because anything that relied upon centrism or moderation collapsed. Seven years of poverty was something that the people of the UK were unaccustomed to, and the trauma of the austerity programme had hurt even more. People were angry; some of that anger manifested in class conflict and led to the Left, some of it manifested in racism and led to the Right, but centrism had no answers for it.

The Lib Dems were virtually wiped out at the ballot box. Labour, led by a genuinely nice person called Ed Milliband from the social democrat wing, didn’t fare much better: Milliband had struggled to keep the socialists away from power and they responded by staying away from the ballot box. The Conservatives were smarter and more ruthless, throwing red meat to their base, and in doing so they won a Parliamentary majority, the last time that this has happened in British politics.

In the 2015 election, Nigel Farage’s UKIP party won a total of one seat. However, their presence in many Conservative areas was significant, and the Conservatives were worried that they were being outflanked on the Right. This led to an increase in red meat on the election manifesto, including setting up a “hostile environment” to alienate foreigners resident in the country (run by a then-obscure figure called Theresa May) and a promise to hold a referendum on leaving the EU.

Meanwhile, Scottish people responded to the broken promises of their independence referendum by voting for the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) in overwhelming numbers. Formerly a fringe party, the SNP captured 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, devastating the traditional Labour-voting lowlands and turning themselves into the third largest party in the UK.

Soon after the election, Milliband resigned as Labour leader. An internal election was held for a new leader, and an obscure socialist figure called Jeremy Corbyn surprised many people by winning over an identikit row of moderates. The social democrat wing, horrified, declared that he was unelectable; the socialist wing responded by coming back to the party in vast numbers, and attracting many young people to the party. Labour’s party membership quickly increased to be the largest-membership party in western Europe, and the grey-haired dishevelled Corbyn became an icon for newly-radicalised youth.

2016: The Referendum
On 23 June 2016, the referendum on leaving the EU was held. A wit in a newspaper referred to this as “Brexit”, a contraction of “British” and “Exit”, and the term stuck. Nobody expected the electorate to vote for anything other than the status quo, and nobody thought that the government would pay any attention to the result. They were wrong on both counts.

Why did it go the way it did? Largely for two reasons. Firstly, turnout was low. After the previous two referendums, moderates weren’t taking referendums seriously. Secondly, massive electoral finance violations and dark money spending on the part of the Leave campaign. Nobody really denies this any more; the Brexiteer response to accusations of cheating is not “we didn’t cheat” but “tough shit, we won, now stop crying about it.”

In the runup to the referendum, the Right-wing press had been screaming slogans, accusing anyone who supported Remain of being a traitor. Perhaps predictably, this led to tragedy. On 16 June, a week before the referendum, a far-Right thug murdered Jo Cox, a prominent pro-Remain politician, on the streets of her own constituency. When asked his name in court, he replied “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

David Cameron, his authority within the party already dented after the 2015 election and some revelations about his own financial impropriety, resigned the day that the referendum result came out. In Britain, when the prime minister resigns, there is not an election: rather, a new leader from within their party becomes prime minister. A brief power struggle occurred within the Conservative party, during which a timid accountant called Theresa May (who had voted Remain) won out over a swaggering aristocrat called Boris Johnson (who had voted Leave.) The smart people within the Conservative party stayed well away this contest.

The Labour party was split by Brexit, with a significant chunk of the socialists supporting Leave, including Corbyn himself. This was yet another thing that horrified the social democrats, who made several unsuccessful attempts to topple him. However, his support within the party continued to grow. Corbyn is a genuinely honest man with rigid principles, which makes him an admirable person and a disaster as a politician, and therefore a very polarising figure as a leader.

Nigel Farage came out of this contest as the hero of the day, or possibly the villain. He was everywhere, taking credit for the referendum result. It was still the first half of 2016 so most people didn’t know what Breitbart or Russia Today meant, but he was on both of them. The initiative, at least, was his.

The Lib Dems, wiped out at the 2015 election, had reinvented themselves as the party of unapologetic Remain, and in the chaos following the referendum they became revanchists. This strong, consistent message helped them rebuild and led to moderates from across the political spectrum joining them.

Theresa May, the new Conservative prime minister, was smarter and more pragmatic than people realised. She understood immediately that Brexit would be an ongoing disaster, and that the person seen as responsible for it would forfeit their political career. She also understood that not delivering it would result in the extinction of the Conservative party. Faced with the choice of being the ruler of a blasted wasteland or the not-ruler of a not-blasted wasteland, May opted for the former.

The fact that May had come to power without winning an election made her seem illegitimate in the eyes of many. To overcome this, in 2017 she called a snap election. (In Britain, the prime minister may call a new election at any time, as long as two-thirds of MPs agree. Normally, all opposition parties will agree: after all, it will give them a chance to become the government.) At the time it seemed like the smart move: Labour were in disarray, and May could punish her enemies within her own party.

2017-18: The Reign of the Maybot
When a new organisation is incorporated, it’s normal to put in some boilerplate rules about what happens if someone chooses to leave, even if you don’t think this will happen. In the EU, these rules are known as Article 50. Under Article 50, a state wishing to leave has a two-year grace period during which they are still a member, which they can use to negotiate the terms of the future relationship. In the hypothetical case that this period expires without an agreement being reached, it could be extended by mutual consent; in the even more hypothetical case that it is not extended, the state leaves with no negotiated terms at all, and must deal with the EU like any other external state. But why bother writing rules for such absurd cases that will never come up?

Shortly before the 2017 election, Theresa May started the clock on Article 50.

The election was not what she had hoped. Rather than coming out with renewed legitimacy, the Conservatives lost enough votes to lose their Parliamentary majority. They were forced to go into coalition with an obscure and terrifying Protestant Fundamentalist party from Northern Ireland called the DUP, giving May just enough support to pass legislation as long as all her people worked together.

Labour, meanwhile, picked up significant numbers of votes. They were still smaller than the Conservatives but it was close. Corbyn came out validated, his own internal enemies stunned by the result. They had said he was unelectable, and here he was doing fairly well. To his fans, he became a messiah figure, the “Absolute Boy” who would lead them to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat and the downfall of capitalism. This was perhaps a strange thing to say of a fairly poor public speaker with bad political instincts, especially one who had just lost an election, but socialists are by nature optimistic folk.

On the Right, Farage had virtually disappeared. After the referendum his support almost evaporated. Some explained this as his supporters having been stolen by the Conservatives as they moved further Right, others explained this as a single-issue party having achieved their single issue and thus being able to disband.

Before explaining what happens next, it is worth talking about the EU. To many people in wealthy countries, the EU is seen as either a glacially-paced farce, or a harmless club for European nations in genteel decline. It is neither. The EU is best understood as the logical continuation of the great European empires that burned the world to ashes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like those empires, it is motivated fundamentally by trade. Like all empires, the EU is inescapably schizophrenic: it ensures wealth and stability at home by imposing poverty and instability abroad. The unofficial motto of the EU may as well be “outside our walls, they starve.” The British were accustomed to being on the inside of those walls. As a result, what happened next surprised them.

May’s plan for negotiations was fairly simple: she would make it the responsibility of those within her party who had been the loudest Leavers, including Boris Johnson. They would get the dirt on their own hands, she could then blame them for the inevitable disaster, and she could get on with what she really cared about, which was disassembling the welfare state.

There was much speculation at the time about what type of deal would be made about the EU’s future relationship with Britain. The EU was straightforward: in exchange for trading and infrastructure links, Britain would need to accept the authority of EU legal frameworks over those things. To Leavers, this was unacceptable: they had not opted to leave the EU in order to keep obeying its rules. They insisted that they be allowed to pick and choose which parts of EU membership Britain kept, a position which came to be known in Europe by the English word “cake.” The Leaver demand for cake was laughed off.

This left two possibilities: Britain could leave the EU but remain integrated economically and legally, obeying rules it had no say in making; or it could cut all ties, devastating its economy and society, and be treated as a vulnerable outsider by every world power. These became known as a “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit” respectively. Generally, those who had supported Remain during the referendum now supported a soft Brexit, and those who had supported Leave now supported a hard Brexit.

The first problem May ran into was that her own party was split on this matter. Diehard groups of hard-Brexit and soft-Brexit supporters formed within the Conservative party, calling themselves the European Research Group (ERG) and One-Nation Conservatives respectively. Due to May’s razor-thin majority, if either group opposed her she could not pass legislation, and as the demands of the two groups were opposing one another, this was virtually guaranteed.

The second problem was less predictable. Due to the way that Article 50 works, if nothing happened and there was no extension, then a hard Brexit would happen by default. This meant that the hard-Brexit faction could simply sit on their hands and run out the clock. Since May had put that same hard-Brexit faction in charge of negotiating the deal, this is exactly what happened. Britain’s negotiating team postured and bluffed to waste time and delight their hardline voter base, and the clock ticked down.

What was the opposition doing during this period?

Labour was quiet. This is partially due to an intelligent decision to fight their own ongoing internal battles quietly, rather than in front of the entire world like the Conservatives; and partially because Corbyn is a terrible public speaker. Quietly, he attempted simultaneously to reach out to both the hardline socialist and defeated social democrats in the party. The social democrats were angry, horrified by the prospect of being run by socialists; and the socialists were unruly, believing that their hour of triumph was near. Many people distrusted him; some because he had supported Leave, and some because distrusting Corbyn had by then become the norm in Labour moderate circles.

The Lib Dems were noisy. They had reinvented themselves as the party of fanatical Remain, urging that Britain take back Article 50 and stay within the EU. They also started to gather membership again after their catastrophic defeat in 2015, attracting moderates from other parties.

In January of 2018, it became apparent that May had made a mistake by placing the EU negotiations in the hands of hard-Brexit supporters who had no interest in negotiations. Boris Johnson remained nominally the Foreign Minister until July, but May took control of negotiations personally. This, too, was a mistake. Negotiations continued until November of 2018 when the deal was finalised.

The deal May negotiated was realistically the only one she could get. Britain is economically entirely dependent on the EU, and has relatively little leverage of its own. To make matters worse, the early British insistence on “cake” had sapped what little goodwill remained. As a result, the eventual deal was a laundry list of things that various EU states wanted from the UK. This is not surprising. British political response to it ranged from weary acceptance from soft-Brexit supporter, to pompous outrage from hard-Brexit supporters, to smug I-told-you-so-ism from revanchist Remainers.

The loudest offence was directed at a part of the agreement which is referred to as the “Irish backstop”, put in place following Irish concerns. By itself it was innocuous: a legal mechanism ensuring that Britain keep the Northern Irish border open as it had promised it would in 1998. To the EU this was doubly harmless. Firstly, the backstop was a request by Ireland, one of the EU member states, and the EU was in the business of putting the requests of its member states above those of soon-to-be foreign states. Secondly, the backstop by itself does nothing unless Britain chooses to break an unrelated treaty from 1998.

To hard-Brexit supporters, however, this was doubly an outrage. Firstly, Ireland has always been seen by the UK as a state that can easily be bullied: they were amazed that the EU would stand up for Ireland rather than conveniently drop their concerns. Secondly, the notion of holding Britain to its promises felt insulting, especially to those who envisioned Brexit as a chance to somehow rebuild a mythical Empire. To them, it was a denial of sovereignty.

What followed was absurdity. Much of the opposition to May’s deal came from the ranks of her own party, particularly from a hard-Brexit faction called the ERG. They insisted either that the Irish backstop be dropped from the deal (which the EU refused) or that the deal itself be dropped and a hard Brexit occur. The deal, of course, was voted down in Parliament. May’s only solution was to insist on another vote on the same deal, then another, then another. No other option could really pass either. Parliament was more or less equally divided between soft-Brexit, hard-Brexit and Remain factions, meaning that any given option has two thirds opposition.

This was especially absurd because both May and Corbyn are poor public speakers. May’s stilted, mechanical delivery led to her nickname of “the Maybot.” Corbyn’s poor political instincts meant that he delivered blows instead of knockouts. It continued endlessly.

A popular joke began to circulate, asking that if Parliament could vote on the same deal again and again, perhaps the referendum should also happen again. This soon stopped being a joke. By January, there were enormous crowds in the streets demanding a new referendum. In Scotland, a similar movement began asking whether they could have a similar rerun of the independence referendum.

By March 2019, the two year timeout should have happened. The EU offered May a six month extension to get the deal agreed by Parliament. They knew it was pointless. May, a defeated and absurd figure, resigned on 7 June 2019.

2019: Johnson (End Times)
Boris Johnson was not the only person in Britain so convinced of his own genius that they wanted to be leader at that moment, but he was the only big name. He brushed aside a few no-prestige challengers in the internal Conservative contest and installed himself as Prime Minister.

It is a well known fact that Johnson sees himself as a modern day Churchill, whom he hero-worships. It is equally well known that Johnson is a fool who cannot understand that others can see through his deceptions. When Johnson set about his Churchillian plans, therefore, he succeeded in alienating everyone except the hardest of hard-Brexit supporters.

He attempted to bully the EU. This failed. He attempted to threaten the opposition. This failed. He tried to get help from the Americans, who demanded such a high price that he was forced to retreat. However, this litany of failures largely does not matter. Johnson is a hard-Brexit supporter. He has promised that, “come hell or high water,” Britain will leave the EU on 31 October 2019. Due to the ticking clock, this is what will happen if nobody does anything.

To ensure that nobody does anything, Johnson decided to shut down Parliament until mid-October, giving them not enough time to take action. This, called “prorogation” in British lexicon, caused an uproar. Vast numbers of liberals, Remainers, socialists and moderates took to the streets, calling it a “coup.” Finally, Labour made their move, which was a masterstroke.

In early September 2019, Labour members of Parliament proposed a bill that ordered the Prime Minister to seek an extension from the EU if no new deal is agreed. Using arcane mechanisms of Parliamentary procedure and a temporary alliance with the Lib Dems, the bill was pushed through quickly, expected to become law on Monday 9 September. Johnson was furious, and ordered every Conservative to vote against it under penalty of expulsion from the party. People don’t like being threatened: 21 Conservative MPs voted against and were consequently expelled from the party (although they are still MPs until the next election.) Johnson’s majority had been cut to just one, and the vote passed.

The next day, while Johnson was speaking, one of his MPs got up and walked silently across the floor of Parliament to sit among the Lib Dems. Johnson, speechless, had lost his majority.

So What Happens Now?
It is widely understood that Johnson has staked his career on being able to deliver Brexit on 31 October. If this happens then the Right will give him the adulation he craves, and make him a leader for as long as he wants to be. If it does not happen, they will cast him aside.

Johnson has attempted to call an election for 15 October. This would not only allow him to purge his party of the last Remainers and soft-Brexit supporters, but would allow him to position it as “the last chance to save Brexit”, and so unify the Right. Not unimportantly, it would also give him an excuse to do nothing until then, running down the clock until a hard Brexit happens by default. The election was voted down in Parliament, as has every other matter than Johnson’s government has brought before them.

There is a good chance that Johnson may resign, to force an election and prevent himself from being responsible for whatever happens on 31 October. He may also simply break the law, refusing to ask for an election. While this is illegal, he may gamble that a Britain outside the EU will not send him to prison. Johnson is a bully, and like most bullies a coward; but he is also a narcissist, and like most narcissists an optimist. It is not clear what he will do. Johnson’s own words have historically been a very poor guide to his actions.

Nigel Farage has returned to front line politics, starting a new party called, confusingly, the Brexit party. There is a real fear among Conservatives that, should the moderates take back control of the party, the voter base will flee en masse to Farage. There is some evidence of this happening in local elections. Once people have become accustomed to a diet of red meat, they are often reluctant to return to vegetables.

A second referendum is at this point very unlikely. While it would be very popular, and Remain would almost certainly win, it would make it impossible to avoid also holding a second referendum on Scottish independence; and this time the pro-independence forces would almost certainly win. No British leader is willing to save their country’s economy if it means going down in history as the person who caused its breakup.

There is the chance that the opposition may unite and topple Johnson. Corbyn has pushed for this to happen. However, it would require a huge coalition between Labour, Lib Dems, renegade Conservatives and the SNP; all those people may hate Johnson and fear Brexit, but many of them hate and fear Corbyn and socialism more.

Behind all of this, there lurks the unspoken but very real fear. A hard Brexit will be disastrous for Britain. The economy is already weakening as the next recession looms. Brexit will lead to food and fuel shortages, possible electric blackouts, medicine shortages and unrest. There are plans for martial law. The EU has prepared to send emergency aid as if it were a natural disaster. Many hard-Brexit supporters deny this, calling any such information “Project Fear” and claiming it’s simply lies; many more acknowledge that it will happen but claim it’s a price worth paying; and many people across the political spectrum have begun stockpiling canned food and finding excuses to get a foreign passport.

As for myself, I’ve started attending local anarchist meetings. If this is what strong and stable government looks like, perhaps we should go with people who understand how anarchy works.

37 Comments

  1. I sent this article to my English friend, who’s pro-Brexit. His reply starts with “Wow. There’s a lot of bollocks in that article.”

    His specific objections:
    – extreme anti-Johnson bias
    – assumes Johnson will lose on prorogation
    – Jo Cox’s murder wasn’t about Brexit
    – coalition governments are not common
    – UKIP and the Brexit party are not far-right
    – most pro-Brexit voters aren’t xenophobes
    – description of how the Conservative & Labour parties work is inaccurate
    – turnout on the referendum was not low – more people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else in the history of Britain.

    He stopped reading at that point.

  2. To EJ and all other Orphans: Like another poster, I offer my Mea Culpa, or, since I’m in a Spanish speaking country, mi disculpa! Now that I’ve been disabused of my previous misgivings about your credibility, EJ, I’ve read this piece with great admiration for your knowledge and objectivity. By education, I’m an American political scientist, but in my retirement I’m resident in Costa Rica and teaching English here. I plan to use your piece in a class this week where my student, also a political scientist, can benefit both from your cogent prose (albeit a bit British) and your astute analysis of UK politics, most of which I did not know. Thank you for contributing to my late-in-life education and to the broadening of my student’s knowledge!

  3. EJ-

    Hats off to you! This is a great piece, and helps me understand some questions I was having about the Brexit process (like why doesn’t anyone just call for a new referendum?). A few comments:

    1) I need to issue a mea culpa. Under the protection of my pseudonym, I’d like to admit that I was pro-Brexit when the referendum first came (I’m not British though, so had no vote). Mainly because I hate the EU. As Creigh and I have repeatedly pointed out, the EU was destined to fail because it’s a monetary union without a fiscal union. I will go further than your statement that “outside our walls, they starve.” Even within the walls, Greeks and Spaniards are starving. The EU was primarily created to serve the interests of Germany and (partially) France, and impoverish everyone else. Even Britain has been hollowed out, except for London thanks to its status as the primary money laundering and tax haven center of the world.

    The EU is anti-democratic to the core. In nearly every nation that ever held a referendum on whether they should join the EU, the people voted no. Politicians then decided the answer was to stop having referenda so they could get on with selling out their nation without the people’s wishes in their ear. If you ask most Europeans what they would want out of a union, they would probably say the freedom to work and immigrate to any European country, fullstop. IOW, enhance the Schengen Area and that’s about it. But 99% of EU’s laws are about restricting national sovereignty over trade, monetary policy, national budgets, industrial policy, etc. Basically, most people wanted to increase freedoms and protections for people, while the EU’s main focus was to increase freedoms and protections for capital.

    You can’t argue with the results. Greece is undergoing a generational Depression, while Spain and Italy aren’t far behind. Indeed, the level of subjugation and deprivation that Greece has undergone typically requires rolling tanks through a country’s capital. The EU has managed to do it with a few keystrokes in Frankfurt.

    For these reasons and more, I’m vehemently anti-EU, and I thought Britain would be a great country to be the first to leave. Because a) it has suffered from the EU, which has left it to essentially become the Cayman Islands with less good weather and more delusions of grandeur; b) most importantly, it still has its own currency, which makes any exit process much, much easier.

    Yes, it was sold to the people with xenophobia, but as a long-term policy, it’s not a bad thing for the UK to leave the EU (and Greece, and Spain, and Italy, and the list goes on). What I didn’t anticipate was how badly the Conservatives would botch the process. I never imagined that anyone would be so delusional as to think that a hard Brexit would somehow be less than a nuclear-strike-scale disaster. I guess I’m too much of an optimistic social democrat…

    2) Has Sinn Fein had any influence on this process? Just curious how Northern Ireland is weighing in on this matter.

    3) I disagree slightly with your take on why Labour declined after 2007/08. Tony Blair was not a social democrat, any more than Bill Clinton was. Blair largely continued the deindustrialization and privatization of Britain that Thatcher had started, although he did pump some (not enough) money into social safety nets like the NHS, while simultaneously selling off huge chunks to predatory capitalists. To this day, I bet Blair is more popular with Conservatives than with Labourites. If that is what constitutes a social democrat, then they deserve to lose. As in America, when people must choose between a Republican and a Democrat who behaves like a Republican, most people will choose the real deal, while everyone else leaves disgusted with the lack of choice. What I mean to say, is that, it wasn’t Labour’s increased social spending that brought about its demise. It was its wholesale adoption of Thatcher’s economic policy (and also, the unpopular middle east wars).

    4) It looks like a hard Brexit will happen, regardless of Johnson’s machinations. At some point, the Europeans will grow tired of giving extensions with no progress being made (or worse, with increasingly ridiculous demands from the British side). I don’t see anyone, even Labour, if they come to power, able to complete an orderly exit, after the years of bad blood that has been spilled between Europe and Britain. What are your thoughts about what happens to the UK after a hard Brexit?

    Anyway, thanks for an excellent piece that allows us non-British to better understand the politics around Brexit.

      1. Probably not. Because economics is hard and it’s difficult to explain to the average person why the EU is fundamentally flawed. Remember Chris’s post about the need to tell stories? The story around the EU was that it was a way to finally end the cycle of devastating wars that ravage the continent every 100 years or so. That’s a powerful story after WWII. No one bothered to look at the nitty gritty details. But Europeans hate each other more now than in decades. Nationalism is on the rise in multiple countries partly due to the austerity measures, neoliberal policies, and loss of national sovereignty that the EU imposed. Yet the founding myth of the EU remains and continues to drive its evolution. Stories are a powerful thing to counter. You usually need a more compelling story, not dry facts. Which is why the xenophobic angle was probably the only way for the Leave groups to win.

        There’s a small chance if they said “Look at what happened to Greece. Do we ever want to end up like that?” But it would be iffy (after all, even the Greeks elected to stay in the EU thanks to the scare tactics of EU and ECB officials).

  4. Just a note Stateside that as of today there are voters that were born after 9/11.

    I’d like to hope that, not generally operating under the stress of post traumatic stress disorder and barely remembering the militaristic quagmire that started our current now officially multigenerational failed wars, they’ll be able to vote with some amount of calm rationality.

    Unfortunately they are getting started under a fascist government that is profiting off the widening gyre of epistemological politics both sides of which are literally fighting tooth and claw to control what constitutes ‘reality.’

    Here’s to the future.

    “Tomorrow will be wonderful, that is, unless it’s indescribably terrible, or unless indeed there just isn’t any.” –Joseph Wood Krutch

    Side note: this constitutes my last and final memorialization of 9/11 and the politics of the post-9/11 world, at least by my own initiative.

  5. I put my money on Russia having a part in all that is happening in Britain. Just like here in the US, it does not take a lot of money to steer the ignorant and ill informed today, what with “social media’ being what it is. Just look at the Q followers here in the US! these people were all set to welcome JFK Jr back from the dead just because some nameless entity said it would happen!

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/team-trump-wrestles-with-its-2020-qanon-problem

    1. EJ

      I rather suspect that every country has its influence in every other country; it’s what makes the world so much fun.

      Chris Ladd described the 2016 Trump vs Clinton election as a contest between the Russians and the Chinese (respectively) to decide on the actions of the Americans.

      The EU is certainly putting its finger on the scale in the UK, as is the US, as (I assume) are the Russians and the Saudis and everyone else.

      1. When it comes to election meddling, my outrage is mostly for the GOPers who didn’t heed the warnings and aren’t exactly busting their tails to be prepared in 2020.

        They meddle, we meddle, they spy, we spy. Nations don’t act nice.

      2. The GOP plays hardball, and they are ready and willing to get dirty when they think they can get away with it.

        The ugly scene that happened in NC Wednesday goes down as one of the most egregious political actions I’ve seen. As long as the people of their states continue to accept stunts like this without serious repercussions, like trump’s ever ratcheting up of outrageous acts, republicans will double down. They have to know time is running out for them as evidenced by a staggering series of unethical and irresponsible actions (or lack thereof).

        I salute this brave NC democratic legislator Deb Butler for unashamedly, forcefully, and honestly standing her ground and calling out the republican speaker of the NC legislature. We need much more righteous indignation. Bravo Ms. Butler!

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/11/north-carolina-republicans-overrode-budget-veto-while-democrats-were-ceremony/

      3. I read in WaPo that that the NC State Senate needs one Dem to vote with the GOP to complete the override. I’ve not heard anything about whether the Dems will stand united to stop this, but I hope they will. Even if you had a valid disagreement with the Governor on the budget, this kind of bald-faced lying on the part of the GOP needs to be forcefully rebuked.

        Did you follow the story of Abbott’s little toady being denied confirmation as TX Secretary of State? The Dems were careful to always be 100% present when the Senate was in session, so that the GOP couldn’t sneak in a confirmation vote in the event that 2 of them were absent. You can’t trust any GOPer anymore. They are addicted to power, and addicts will lie and steal and cheat to get their fix.

  6. Just to add to EJ’s superb explanation

    The question is WHY did so many Brits vote Leave in the referendum

    The answer is that the EU has been a handy dandy whipping boy for over 40 years
    British politicians have been able to blame the EU for their own cock ups – and the EU has had no mechanism for defending itself – or any real interest in doing so

    So every time something goes wrong – or not right it’s the EU!!

    Wrong type of leaves on the tracks – MUST be the EU

    (I will explain that joke – when the trains into London had to be delayed it was blamed on “leaves on the track” – and later on “the wrong type of leaves on the track”)

    We saw that with BoJo waving a kipper and complaining about silly EU rules when the rules in question were British ones

    So after 40 years of continual propaganda it’s surprising that as many as 48% of the voter voted to stay

    1. EJ

      In fairness, the “wrong type of leaves” was actually a genuine engineering problem.

      Oak leaves are acidic. When decaying oak leaf mulch absorbs rainwater, the resulting mixture becomes a brine, which conducts electricity. If such a leaf mulch is to lie across a railway track such that it links the rails, it will cause a short circuit and possibly a fire.

      The solution to this is to sweep the line regularly, but that’s expensive and the UK outsources all these sorts of things to companies which make money by cutting corners, so it didn’t get done.

  7. In re: judging the credibility, I concur with what Mary Guercio wrote above. EJ has been a significant contributor of cogent, well-thought-out and well-researched long pieces on topics I am not as familiar with as I wish I were. In this one, I feel like I learned a lot of details I didn’t know, and in the well-organized presentation it made some of the madness a little more comprehensible. For that, a tip of my cap to EJ.

    For me, the inevitable conclusion is that we Americans have no monopoly on absurd decision-making and the resulting mashups.

  8. Joseph, those of us who have been following Chris for years may have an advantage over newer followers. EJ has been contributing serious observations for quite some time. I have always found his posts to be intelligent and insightful. At the end of the day, every post is based to some degree on our individual opinions. What makes some opinions more important than others is their quality. EJ put his view of Brexit out there to help those of us who are not living in England but care about what is happening there. This great country is America’s friend. How this economic and political turmoil is resolved has great significance for the industrialized world, including the United States of America.

    Thank you EJ for helping me better understand the History behind Brexit and its impact to international affairs.

  9. Brilliant piece EJ.

    This should be used as a precis for any course on this chapter in history, assuming there are functioning schools and historians in a few decades.

    A few questions and thoughts:

    1. Parliament has mandated that the traitor go back to the EU and negotiate in good faith and ask for a further extension. He has been quoted he would prefer being found “dead in a ditch” rather than do that. (I am sure there are millions that would happily oblige him.) What is to stop him from going back to the EU, making a mockery of trying to negotiate, come backs to the U,K., and says. “well, I tried, but the EU negotiators are crazy, and we are falling out of the EU with a crash”.???

    Regardless of what the U.K. Parliament writes into law, if the EU pulls the plug Oct 31st, that’s it, and I don’t see anything that can stop the traitor from sabotaging any efforts on both sides from getting a sane result.

    2. Can you give us background on how much Cambridge Analytica was involved with Farage in the months leading up to the referendum? I remember hearing their name, and I know they are deeply involved with the nutbar Mercer family, but I thought there was a russian tie-in as well. I just don’t remember how deeply involved CA was.

    3. I get BBC on my television package. I remember staying up to 5:00 am my time waiting for the results to trickle in. I also remember the horror on the faces and in the voices of the analysts as the reality of the results set in. I simply cannot grasp how the U.K. has that many people willing to self-destruct.

    4. If there is the worst case scenario, what exactly will happen at the border between the two Ireland’s?

    5. Those that say that assassinations don’t work should do some background on how much damage Farage and others did with outright lies pre-referendum. Would the outcome of executing a few traitors be any worse than it is today?

    1. The rule of law has taken a beating, but I’m not declaring it dead. Not yet. So I’d rather see people like Farage and Murdoch and Trump and everyone else who’s ripped the social fabric with lies put on trial over just putting them against the wall absent any rules.

      I already know your response. I disagree that we have reached any political event horizon. This is not to say that we can’t or we won’t reach it, but it’s not here yet.

    2. EJ

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. If you could do me a favour, please don’t ever use the word “traitor” in a UK political context. I understand that to you it means a person you dislike, but ever since the murder of Jo Cox, the term “traitor” has been identifiably a part of the far Right lexicon in the UK and not used otherwise.

      As to specific questions:

      1. The EU has, so far, been afraid of the UK negotiating in bad faith in this way. As a result our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been careful to publish his proposals openly and talk about them in English so that everyone in the UK can know what they were.

      Johnson is not unwilling to tell lies, but he’s not stupid enough to tell a lie which can be trivially fact checked.

      2. It is my understanding that Cambridge Analytica were linked to a billionaire called Aron Banks, who is also linked to Farage, but there is no direct link between them.

      3. The UK has been living in poverty for more than a decade. London, where I live, is a city of approximately six million people with more than three hundred thousand homeless. I think to many people, the self-destruction happened in 2008, not 2016.

      4. In the worst case scenario, both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries will rearm in Northern Ireland. Each will expect their patron nation (the UK and ROI respectively) to support them in taking feudal control of their religious communities whether or not those communities want it, and fighting a low-level civil war. Hopefully those patron nations will not do so. Hopefully we will not reach this worst case scenario.

      5. The assassinations have already begun, and her name was Jo Cox.

      1. EJ, thank you for the explanations to my questions. They further illuminate the situation. But as to the request to not use the word “traitor”, sorry, but no.

        By any measure of the definition of the word, Farage, Johnson, the tyrant in the u.s., and their cadres, are indeed traitors to their respective nations. To let your monsters co-opt the word and because of their actions cow everyone else not use the perfect definition of them allows them to win another victory.

  10. Excellent summation. I do have one question and that is how did Britain get into the situation of a very small minority of voters being able to select a Prime Minister? My impression was that a PM continued while he had the support of Parliament, but if he lost support of Parliament, then a new election was called. In the U.S. we currently have a President who was elected by a minority and the previous Republican President was also elected by a minority, through machinations by our SCOTUS. This within a period of 16 years. Both of these Presidents have made a terrible mess of things, as the entire world knows only too well. I’m not going into more detail because the subject here is Brexit and the UK Government, but with the importance of the U.S., it is hard to avoid the situation in the U.S.

    I finally have an understanding of why politically calling a new referendum on Brexit is so difficult for UK politicians, regardless of the Party. But too me that would be the best approach and in line with the principle of majority rule in a democracy provided that basic rights of the minorities are not abridged.

    Unfortunately in both the U.S. and Britain the governing class is very conservative, and seems to be primarily interested in maintaining power by any means possible and has been selected by a minority group and/or mechanism that facilitates the desire to retain power, and to go back to a perceived great era – in the U.S. that is the 1950’s, in Britain it is Empire (perhaps the Victorian Era?). Both groups seem to be primarily interested in White Supremacy. Regardless that the consequence of so doing will be poor competitiveness and social welfare in the 21st Century.

    With all this including the Boeing 737-Max fiasco (with EASA effectively saying they are no longer going to accept the judgement of the FAA without independent evaluation, though they will cooperate), I sometimes wonder if the EU is not light years ahead of both of our systems? They do have their problems and need significant modifications, but at least it is a road ahead and is compatible with the philosophy known as Social Democracy, which seems to be more typical of the direction in which the more progressive parts of the U.S. and the Democratic Party are presently headed. I’m finding that is my political philosophy, as well. In many respects, the governance of the U.S. during the late 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s shared much of that philosophy.

    1. EJ

      Your understanding of the British constitution is slightly off, I’m afraid.

      The UK does not elect a Prime Minister: it elects a party, that party becomes the government, and that government’s leader becomes Prime Minister. At any time, the party may switch leader according to its own internal rules, and that leader becomes the new Prime Minister.

      When the government loses a vote of confidence in Parliament, the government ends. If this happens, either another party must be able to pass a vote of confidence, or there must be new elections. Since there is no guarantee that the old government will not win reelection, votes of confidence only tend to happen when some other party is fairly sure that they can either form a government, or win an election.

      No other party is sure of this right now, so no vote of confidence has been called. Corbyn has attempted to put together a grand Labour / Lib Dem / SNP / rebel Tory coalition, which would definitely be able to oust Johnson and stop Brexit. Sadly, he has not succeeded. Many people, including myself, bear a great deal of anger towards the Lib Dems for this specific betrayal.

      1. Thank you EJ. That is very helpful. In the U.S., we get very little information except brief blurbs on U.K. government, politics and history. Ir is essentially completely ignored in the little civics taught in schools. I got very virtually none on the U.K., when I was in school and that was the 50’s and 60’s when civics was still considered important. I am much better informed than the normal person on these subjects and i am uninformed. So thank you for your clear explanations.

      2. EJ

        In fairness, I know nothing about the constitutions or electoral laws of most US states; there’s no reason why you should know about those of EU states.

        I’m glad I was able to help.

  11. I checked the BBC website to see if BoJo had resigned yet. He’s not quite dead yet, but here’s a new plot twist:

    https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-49650729

    So how will that figure into this drama?

    Thanks for your take on this. I’m left wondering who will cock up their system more, the U.K. or the U.S.? Here at least we have the prospect of a reprieve with the 2020 elections, but even a Blue tsunami only represents the opportunity to fix some broken things; it’s no guarantee. The fact that the impeachment or 25A options don’t look viable is a sign of how much is broken. If you’re lying about the goddamn weather, you ought to have a comprehensive psych-eval.

    I do find it ironic that some people who hated the austerity think hard Brexit is worth it.

  12. Although this post may be credible, I have deep suspicions. Why? I have no trust in anyone who uses initials (EJ) to claim authorship. I only read the first few lines; they do seem to be professional in their approach, but, hell, Breitbart can write in a professional-sounding manner too, even though it’s full of lies. What are the credentials of this writer?

    1. Credibility? I base my judgment of credibility on the accuracy of the information I can verify, the cogency of the arguments presented, the clarity of the presentation, and the conformance of the conclusions to what I perceive to be external reality.

      Credibility based primarily on credentials is, in my experience, the refuge of middle managers unwilling to stake their own credibility on making a judgment for themselves. Typical, in my experience, of the administrators of small departments in large universities.

      YMMV.

    2. EJ

      It’s a fair question.

      My credentials, within the sphere of readers of this blog, are that I have been commenting for years and they mostly (hopefully) know and trust me. Chris would refer to this as “social capital.” I am a European national resident in the UK. My politics are of the Left: internationalist, feminist, socially progressive, pacifist and anticapitalist. If you intuitively distrust people in any of these groups, please feel free to distrust me.

      While I do go by my initials, that’s largely a stylistic choice at this point. One can invent a false name with six letters as well as two. I could have called myself Joseph if I wished.

      My educational and professional qualifications are not relevant to this, of course. My doctorate is not in anything related to politics, and I work in the data industry. I am not a journalist by trade, and the quality of my prose probably gives this away.

      As for my information gathering skills, here’s a secret UK government Brexit-planning document that leaked today. Have fun!

      https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/831199/20190802_Latest_Yellowhammer_Planning_assumptions_CDL.pdf

      1. Most interesting. And I note with concern that the shortest item, number 17, is likely the worst for the most people:

        17. Low income groups will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel.

        If British voters are anything like their American cousins, I bet lots of those low income persons were supporters of Brexit. I’m sure they were warned of some serious uncomfortable consequences, but like their American cousins, they poo-pooed the warnings and applauded the nationalistic rhetoric.

      2. Ken, I’m thinking of the parallel with America farmers. The trade war is hurting them. They are getting welfare payments from the Trump Admin, which is slowing the bad effects enough to not cause a big drop in support, but not completely stoping the bankruptcies. Can BoJo similarly buy off all those Leave voters about to get shafted? I doubt it.

      3. I got grey in my hair. Anytime you do something someone is going to criticize it. Often by attacking your character or your knowledge or expertise. Unless they legitimately question on facts or the logic of your argument and conclusion ignore them. They have nothing to contribute. I admire people who put the oar to the water and do something. Take a chance on facing dissention and being criticize . On being possibly wrong. Thank you for your writing. It certainly increase my knowledge.

      4. What kind of anarchist groups have you been partaking?

        I’m an anarcho-syndicalist myself. Essentially, all hierarchies should have to be transparent and prove themselves legitimate and worthy to their constituents.

        Thanks for the piece. I don’t pay enough attention to the EU/UK, and I appreciate your explaining it in a nice tidy article.

      5. EJ

        Ken:
        The discourse in the UK has a similar assumption that poor people were Brexiteers, but statistically it’s not true. Poor people were fairly evenly split Leave/Remain.

        On the other hand, there are some genuine correlations: rural people to Leave vs urban to Remain; and old people to Leave vs young to Remain. These are possibly connected: in the UK people will often move to the cities when young, leaving the countryside full of the elderly.

        N1cholas:
        The group I’m attending is consciously modelled on the Rojava experiment, and as such has strong ties to traditional anarcho-feminist and anarcho-environmentalist tendencies. I have a lot of respect for syndicalism – I’m a trade union member – but this group doesn’t seem to have many traditional industrial activist sorts in it.

        I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the unionisation of gig work – as a syndicalist, do you believe the ghost of Eugene Debs has an opinion on it?

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