Whether you consider it comedy, or consider it tragedy, there is no question that Brexit is hugely, riotously, bloodily entertaining. The Queen okays a parliamentary prorogation! Puce-faced parliamentarians bawl at each other across the chamber! The Supreme Court shoots down the prorogation! An opposition leader is dared – and double-dared – to call a general election: He wimps out! A prime minister stalks out of the debating chamber in high dudgeon!
This is a situation in which satire is superfluous. Could any comedic scriptwriter alive better this?
And satire has already been trumped by irony. The democratic body in which all this is playing out, let us remember, is the national assembly that likes to call itself “The Mother of Parliaments” – a debate chamber that prides itself on cool good manners.
Granted, some principles remain sacrosanct.
Even as they spit venom upon one another, members of Parliament still observe the conventions of addressing their adversaries by the title “My honorable friend.” And no MP has yet punched another in the nose, booted him in the bollocks or slashed him across the face with a broken pint glass.
Still, the emotional temperature is the highest this writer has seen in his lifetime, the debates are fast and furious. It’s all tremendous stuff.
But enough about entertainment value. Matters are now starting to look truly worrisome.
On the one hand, the countdown to D-Day for Brexit, October 31, is accelerating inexorably. Yet the chasms between, on the one hand, the Boris Johnson government and its domestic opposition, and on the other hand, between Westminster and Brussels appear wider than ever.
At the same time – and more worryingly for the long-term political stability of the UK – cracks are starting to spread across the face of democratic governance. Johnson has indicated he may defy Parliament and ignore a law that forbids a no-deal exit from the European Union.
The body count soars
Seen from afar, Brexit is proving a national disaster of diabolical proportions: a convergence of automobile pileup, train wreck and air crash.
First, it is threatening the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland. Second, it is proving to be the death knell of one prime minister after another. Third, by deadlocking Britain’s national governance, it may – just may – threaten one of the world’s most vaunted parliamentary democracies.
The fact that Brexit was largely a vote by England – the most powerful (and inevitably most despised) nation in the union – compounds the sense of non-representative injustice felt elsewhere, notably in Scotland. This – more so than the Scottish independence referendum – makes Brexit is the biggest threat to the union in recent history.
Brexit has already claimed two prime-ministerial scalps. The first was that of the doltish and disastrous David Cameron, who – having gambled on and won the Scottish referendum – overstepped and called a totally unnecessary Brexit referendum simply to unite his own Conservative Party. That backfired catastrophically.
He was soon joined by his successor, the hapless Theresa May, who tried to do an undoable deal with Brussels – and was naturally given the thumbs down by Parliament.
With a Brexit deal undoable, the next entrant came in with the opposite approach. But that has hardly gone swimmingly, either. It has proved, thus far. to be a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
The current buffoon-in-chief Boris Johnson – elected by the skinhead, hard core of his party of nation wreckers in an intra-party vote, rather than by the broad British public in an election – looks set to have his famous blond locks similarly tomahawked in a welter of blood (but not much brain).
Having lost a series of parliamentary votes, not to mention the humiliation of a Supreme Court decision, the great blusterer has yet to give a clear answer as to whether he will obey a law passed by Parliament that forbids a no-deal Brexit: The Benn Act requires him to ask the EU for an extension of the October 31 deadline for Brexit if no deal has been agreed.
Making all these matters worse is the absence of effective or principled opposition.
Like Johnson, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is that most despicable species of political creature: One palatable to the true believers of its own party, but not the general public. An unelectable hard leftie of the old school, Corbyn has refused Johnson’s challenge of a general election, while his stance on Brexit is as clear as mud.
Prime minister versus parliament
So the battle lines are drawn. An unelected prime minister without a majority faces off against a divided Parliament without an opposition.
The two adversaries represent two different formats of democracy. They also represent populism versus professionalism.
Johnson claims to be upholding the will of the people, as expressed via direct democracy – that is, the Brexit referendum. Parliament claims its prerogative as the official national law-making body – that is, the elected membership of a representative democracy.
This fracture in the machinery of governance, exemplified by Johnson’s possible defiance of parliament and law, creates a dangerous situation. And that situation is made yet more perilous by the fact that the UK’s constitution is based on precedent, rather than on written documentation.
From the political to the economic
Even so: Thus far the damage has been restricted largely to the political sphere. It may soon transition to the economic. If the UK “crashes out” of the EU on October 31, then the potential for catastrophic damage to all related parties is real.
Tariffs will take effect without bilateral provisions having been made to apply them. Cargoes are likely to pile up on both borders. Cross-channel (and global) supply chains will face calamitous uncertainties as economic relations between the world’s largest trade bloc and its sixth-largest economy descend into decontrol.
And political fallout may advance from the raucous to the deadly.
If the issue of the Irish/Northern Irish border – and neither the Johnson government nor the EU seems to have any viable plan that the other can feasibly agree to – is not sorted out, the possibility of terrorist furies being rekindled is real.
So: The clock ticks.
Shit, scheisse, merde
In English, we would say that a mighty shit cake has been baked – a shit cake upon which the British people may well be forced to dine.
But perhaps English is poorer in appropriate terms for the current situation than the languages of our continental neighbors. Let us turn to military history for some piquant terminology.
German troops in World War I called a barrage of heavy artillery a Scheissesturm. And indeed, “shit storm” is a pretty fair description of what is happening to Britain’s national governance.
But an embattled French general had already gone one better. General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot – seeing his enemies massed on the high ground around his position at Sedan – was moved to comment: “Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés!”
“Being in a piss pot and about to be shit upon” seems a fitting metaphor for the UK’s current tribulations.
Things are bad. Most indications are that they are going to get worse.