Britain, standing out for all the wrong reasons

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Messy divorce: As the Brexit deadline draws near without a firm deal, May has to fend off attacks from all sides.

THE Economist in its annual choice of country of the year had Malaysia in a shortlist of three. However, Malaysia did not make it, largely because it is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who now leads the country after the historic electoral defeat of Barisan Nasional, and not Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

The British publication has always had a deep antipathy towards Dr Mahathir and an extraordinarily generous assessment of Anwar. While Malaysians may not share this disdain or innocent affection, the upshot is Malaysia did not get the accolade. 

Facetiously, according to the irreverent Economist, it had thought of Britain, but dismissed it as something of a joke. Quite on the contrary – and I am deadly serious – I would nominate Britain to be country of the year. In fact, the country of three years.

In June 2016, the British narrowly and senselessly voted in a referendum to leave the European Union based largely on emotion – without any idea of how it would take place and what would be involved. Their irresponsible then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who called for the referendum in the hope it would heal divisions in his Conservative Party over EU membership, resigned, leaving the mess with successor Theresa May, who had voted to remain in the EU.

 Like all new converts, May has bent over backwards to show commitment to her new faith. “Brexit means Brexit” was her constant refrain for the remainder of 2016. On March 29, 2017, her government triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union to withdraw from membership.

Since then, Britain has been negotiating with the EU on the terms of the withdrawal which will become effective on March 29 next year.

This month, I followed closely the House of Commons debate which was to result in a vote on Dec 11 on a withdrawal deal May had brought back from Brussels. At the 11th hour May bottled. There was no vote as the deal clearly would not be approved; this is primarily because of the Irish backstop, which is a mutual understanding not to have a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland.

In other words, Northern Ireland would stay temporarily aligned to some rules of the EU single market – imposing checks and controls on some goods coming in from the rest of Britain. At the same time, it would also involve a temporary single custom territory effectively keeping the Britain in the EU customs union. The fear was that this could become permanent.

Without going into the toxicity of this fear in the sectarian politics of Ireland – and the encroachment on British sovereignty it portends – this was enough to stop May in her tracks, especially as she is dependent for her government’s majority in Parliament on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Anyway, she scurries to Europe to get assurances that the backstop would be temporary, but did not get them, as the EU did not agree to renegotiate the deal that had been reached. She comes home. More debate in Parliament. But no vote until Parliament reconvenes on Jan 7 after the Christmas break; exact date of vote not committed.

So here we are on the cusp of 2019, almost three years since that fateful 2016 referendum and, more ominously, the approaching March 29 – when Britain is out of the EU with or without an agreement. Unless its government revokes or seeks an extension of time on notice of withdrawal under Article 50 – prematurely invoked by May without first firming up the form and shape of deal Britain wants on withdrawal from the EU.

So, Brexit is not Brexit after all. It is not as simple as that.

As calls for a second referendum mount – maybe on either of three options: May’s Brexit deal, Brexit with no deal, or to remain in the EU – the British Prime Minister has latched on to another populist refrain. She now says constantly that a second referendum would be a betrayal of the people’s will.

Democracy and the expression of the people’s will are not a one shot thing. She forgets, for instance, there was a referendum that resulted in a decision to remain in 1975. She refuses to take into account the fact that the British people will be consulted again, and not denied their right, after the real package of what they had decided upon blindly is put to them in the full light of reality.

It is a failure of leadership not to bring attention to facts that should underlie decision-making. As Beatrice Webb (one of the founders of the London School of Economics and Political Science) once observed: “Democracy is not the multiplication of ignorant opinions.”

Instead, the British bulldog spirit is now being whipped up: “We can go it alone. We have done it before.”

But all this does not take into account that Britain would become an outlaw violating the many agreements it had made with the EU after decades of membership or would face supply shortages, service disruptions, price increases and economic dislocations, among others.

Perhaps the prospect of no Mars bars being available on the shop shelves in Britain within two weeks of a crash out of the EU (because two vital ingredients with a short shelf life will be stuck in the jam of disruptions that will follow) might concentrate minds better on the risks involved.

Yet there is no one taking a handle on things. Brexit goes on and on with no end game in sight. There have been no other headlines. If not for the sacking of Jose Mourinho as the manager of Manchester United football club, many Malaysians would have turned away from following British news.

As for the British government, the propensity by design or default to do self-harm continues. The people and the country will suffer, as will relations with other countries.

Britain stands out these three years for all the wrong reasons – but stand out it does.

Former journalist Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid is a corporate leader who is also Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE IDEAS.