This week’s multicar pileup in the British Parliament is the definition of an unmitigated, self-inflicted disaster. Brought on by reckless, self-serving politicians who peddled lies to the public about how much richer and stronger Britannia would be outside the European economic and political alliance, Brexit rested on the false promise that Britain would dictate the terms of the divorce. Three years later, thwarted by laws and reality, Brexiteers are driving their cars headlong into traffic, still insisting they set the rules of the road, immune to logic and inevitable injury.
Two weeks shy of the March 29 deadline to drive off a cliff Thelma-and-Louise style and crash out of the European Union with no deal, the anti-Europe lawmakers who created this mess remain as stubbornly immune to reason as spoiled children who believe they can stamp their feet and get their way. It’s impossible not to rubberneck at the wreck across the pond, searching for lessons in the paralysis and damage done to a democracy when extremist ideology and falsehoods trump facts.
After Tuesday’s crushing defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s last, best deal for an EU divorce, two more votes are expected this week to reject leaving without a deal and, comically, to send May back to Brussels to beg for an extension. Yet our closest ally is no closer to a Plan C. More time just kicks the can into the crash zone, because there is no possible deal to please the ideological extremes, nor any parliamentary coalition to form a majority for any outcome.
May made the fatal mistake of trying to please extremists in her Conservative party—and calling early elections that left her dependent on a far-right coalition—instead of building a cross-party consensus from the start. Now ideologues drive the day.
Far-right lawmakers believe the EU is a socialist conspiracy to denude Britain of its sovereign rights, and they want Brexit on their own terms at any cost, forgetting those sage British philosophers the Rolling Stones, who reminded us you can’t always get what you want. Sure, you can try sometimes, but how about settling for what you need?
It’s not just Tories who’ve blocked the way. Scottish nationalists voted no because they want an independent Scotland in the EU—or at least Britain to remain. Liberal Democrats and some Labor and Conservative MPs want to stay in Europe and are pushing for a redo of the narrowly decided referendum, hoping the public will have come to its senses—or that enough younger pro-EU voters will show up to vote and enough elderly pro-Brexit voters will have passed away. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn and far-left lawmakers oppose a new referendum, because they see the EU as a capitalist cabal subjugating workers to globalist trade deals and austerity. Even if the EU grants more time, disparate entrenched factions can’t agree on what they want, says Amanda Sloat, a British politics expert at the Brookings Institution.
What are the lessons for the United States and other developed democracies? Michael Dougan, a European law scholar at the University of Liverpool, told me he sees “a lot of parallels between the political tactics of the ‘Leave’ campaigners and the Trump movement in America.” The shared playbook of populist movements ascendant in the United States and Europe, Dougan says, is to “lie as much as you can about as many things as you can in as extreme terms as you can, sell fantasies detached from reality, and when it doesn’t work out the way you want, blame everyone else.”
Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, sees another parallel: politicians putting “party over country.”
“Populism, fear of immigrants, economic fears” whipped up Brexit sentiment, she says, and even if populists are “against everything,” they win when traditional parties “can’t articulate what they are for.” Britain and the United States are “centrist countries, but the center has been eviscerated, and the extreme right and left can’t solve anything,” says Conley. “I’m a moderate Republican and I don’t even know if I have a party anymore.”
The Brexit debacle shows us we are in an age of irresponsibility, of cynical politicians who will lie and walk away if it doesn’t work. The shambolic affair is a terrifying glimpse of our collective future if democracies fall prey to fantasists and irrational policy-making, leaving it to the next generation to clean up the mess.