Brexit: the shunned demands of statecraft

Brexit is an epic crisis. To solve it the British governing class will have to abandon shabby politics and try statecraft. 

We do not need to be detained by the original epic blunder: the decision of Prime Minister David Cameron, as he then
was, to organize a simple majority vote on whether Britain should stay in the
European Union (EU). It is difficult to find a sagacious observer of current
affairs who thinks that was an outstanding display of prudence. Calling the
vote was bad enough but not insisting on a supermajority requirement of some
kind for a decision of such moment boggles the mind. But, as they say, we are
where we are.

The entire process has turned out to be a foul mess, and even the ardent supporters of Brexit now decry its handling.
That ‘handling’ of the process is what this essay is about. The question is
this: suppose after the referendum result came out and even the winners were
shocked, we had had running Great Britain a politician of uncommon wisdom,
perhaps a reincarnation of Solon, one of the great lawgivers of Ancient Greece, how would he or she have handled
the emergency that Brexit is? That question has preoccupied me as the current
mess had endured and seems set to do so for a good while yet. In other words,
as the Brexit emergency arose what were the demands of statecraft rather than grimy
politics? How should Brexit have been handled by a sagacious leader?

We start with the objectives of the exercise of statecraft. What would they have been? I would propose at least two
overarching objectives. The first would have been to heal the nation after such
a divisive process, the referendum campaign. A close referendum result settles nothing and
does not give the winning side the right to launch revolutionary change while
ignoring the dire consequences. The second would have been to avert harm to the
nation and its economy as well as its global standing. You don’t suddenly bolt
a club whose rules have been woven into the very fabric of national life over
40 years plus without doing incalculable damage. Under this approach, rushing
to invoke Article 50, to tell the EU that Britain would be leaving on a set
date, would have been considered worse than daft. This is not to say that
Britain would not have left the EU still, at least for a season, but an effort
would have been made to get a sense of the nation rather than simply intone
robotically that Brexit means Brexit. It quite evidently does not.

Two of the biggest lessons from the implementation of reforms around the world come in handy here. The first lesson
is that without political will a reform is impossible. And political will
simply means enough leadership support for the change you seek. What is enough
depends on the configuration of political forces. The Brexit implementation
process has revealed that there is insufficient political will behind the
leading versions of Brexit being touted now. Hence the ruptured state of the
British governing class. And that is because the leader of the process, Prime
Minister Theresa May, did not build enough support within the governing class
for what she is trying to do. She did not even try.

The second relevant lesson from reforms
around the world is that reforms that will intimately affect the lives and
possibilities of citizens, especially those that will inflict losses on wide
segments of the population, will be vigorously resisted. That is what the
burgeoning campaign for a second referendum is about. The leaders implementing
the reform must build broad support for what they are trying to do. Again, Mrs
May did not do this. She looked at the needs of her party, the Conservatives,
and herself and decided what version of Brexit we would all have…and now says
it is her way or no deal. As reality bites she twists and turns.

All this becomes more urgent and ticklish when you consider the multinational nature of the United Kingdom. This
is a complex country with devolved administrations. Mrs May ignores them all.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU yet is being dragged out of it.
Northern Ireland has special needs, as we all now know. And this is not to
mention the attitudes of the virtual city state of London. Like most Londoners
I see Brexit as a grievous and unforgivable imposition by the hinterland, the
Little Englanders.

Given such complexity, what is happening in Britain today is stunning in its unwisdom. Rather than go large
the leadership has gone small. Rather than go high it has gone low. And it is a
failure of the entire governing class. Shabby politics reigns. Some
players simply focus on unseating the Prime Minister. Others just want a
general election so that the Marxists now running the Labour Party can come to
power. Yet what is clear is that to end this crisis, to solve this sky-scraping
problem, the British governing class will have to stop shunning the urgent and insistent
demands of statecraft.


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