Short answer: Not great. Bit of a mess. Long answer:
Last week, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Liberal cosmopolitans, international financiers and their courtiers, and centrist technocrat types lost to nativists, nationalists, and a few anti-globalism leftists. This is lots of people’s fault, though most people blame some combination of the following:
- Racist voters
- Cynical demagogues (politicians, newspapers, etc.)
- Austerity-pushing, anti-democratic European Union leaders
The vote revealed a deeply divided nation: London joined Northern Ireland and Scotland in voting remain. The rest of England (and Wales) voted leave. For not the first time this decade, elites were shocked at the depth and intensity of anti-elite resentment outside their exclusive bubbles.
After the vote, though, lots of bad things seemed to start happening, like the pound losing a ton of value and all the markets going a bit haywire. It turns out that leaving the EU is going to be very complicated.
Right now, British politicians, including pro-Brexit ones, are urging a slow, leisurely, maybe-indefinite path to actually exiting the EU, which will be a two-year process anyway. The European Union, though—which loves nothing more than exacting punishment on its wayward member states—wants to make the breakup as fast and painful as possible, and also the states that largely control the EU want to ensure that they come out ahead in the divorce—France, for example, wants to supplant London as a world finance capital.
What Will Actually Happen?
It is basically a standoff. There are a couple possibilities:
- The UK begins the exit process by the end of the year, and they eventually end up basically like Norway, which is not an EU member state but enjoys many of of the privileges of membership—including open travel—through its membership in the European Economic Area. Everything is basically OK, after a few years of uncertainty. Life goes on.
- If Britain insists on restriction of immigration, and France seeks to use its superior negotiating leverage to steal away the City of London’s business, then the EU will force the UK to agree to something like the Norway situation, but crafted in such a way that it deliberately cripples London’s financial sector by blocking them from selling financial services to EU citizens outside of Britain. This is not a great scenario for Britain, though the immigration restrictionists sort of get their way, and the dismantling of London’s financial sector would be a satisfying sight for many.
- Britain just keeps putting off leaving forever and sort of hopes everyone forgets about the whole thing. This is an actual possibility! As The Guardian reports, “some Brussels insiders are worried that the UK may never trigger article 50, because the two-year deadline for talks would put the leaver in a weak position.” This might even be more likely than an official “do-over” referendum, or the House of Commons voting not to leave after all.
Or maybe some other, fourth thing will happen. (Everyone else also leaves the EU?)
How Are British Politics Now?
Boris Johnson, a noxious toff and the former mayor of London, was one of the primary figures behind the pro-Brexit campaign. The smart set in Britain largely believe that he backed it as a means to challenge Prime Minister David Cameron for control of the Conservative Party, and never expected that the referendum would actually pass. After the vote, Cameron resigned rather than officially triggering the Brexit himself in order to force Johnson, thought of as the probable next prime minister, to pull the trigger. Johnson, meanwhile, did a lot of funny backpedaling, essentially promising that leaving the EU will be totally painless and not lead to anything bad happening.
Johnson claimed that Britons will be able to restrict immigration from EU countries, but also that they will be free to visit and work in any EU countries they wish. EU diplomats and officials, as you can probably imagine, do not actually plan to allow the UK to keep all the things it likes about being the EU without also having to do things like “contributing to funding the EU” and “following EU regulations.”
Johnson was expected to launch his leadership bid today, with his Leave campaign consigliere Michael Gove acting as a sort of quasi-running mate. That all went to shit. Yesterday, an email from Gove’s wife leaked to the press, in which she says that Gove doesn’t really trust Johnson and that many Tories “instinctively dislike Boris.”
Today, Gove—who has said for years that he does not want to be prime minister and would in fact be quite bad at it—shivved Johnson, announcing that he would make his own leadership bid because “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Gove is an interesting figure. He’s former journalist, like Johnson, but unlike Johnson (and Cameron) (and most of the Tory leadership) he’s not a posh Etonian toff. He is a right-wing true believer, who charms journalists and critics with his courtesy and erudition, and who presents himself as someone who genuinely believes his brand of conservatism will create a better and more just world—like a sort of cleverer Paul Ryan. He also never seemed like he was lying when he said he did not want to be prime minister because he’s not fit for the job (The Guardian: “he is famously impractical, he’s not good with numbers, he does not like flying, and some of his intellectual interests border on the eccentric”).
Here is a Vine of Michael Gove:
A bunch of other Tories also declared their bids, but Gove’s primary competition will likely be Theresa May, the long-serving Home Secretary (putting her in charge of law enforcement and national security), who was anti-Brexit but not that anti-Brexit. She’s seen as something of a moderate, making her the “anyone but Boris” candidate before Boris got got. But despite her moderate reputation, she’s an anti-immigration hardliner, and not a huge fan of the European convention on human rights. She’s also, according to this one Telegraph columnist’s friend, “the most boring woman in Britain.”
You would think, with the Tories in disarray and rudderless, that their traditional political opponents, the Labour Party, would be seizing the moment and coalescing around their own leader. Ha, no, of course they are not. Instead, Labour members of Parliament celebrated Brexit by holding a no-confidence vote in their leader, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, as part of the ongoing leadership crisis that has consumed Labour and distracted them from attacking the Tories for, you know, semi-accidentally leaving the EU.
The UK’s different parties have very different rules for selecting leaders, but if you massively simplify it, the basic process for the Tories and Labour is similar: Candidates are nominated by members of Parliament, then there is a national vote among supporters of the party. Corbyn’s election was something of an accident of that process to begin with. Labour MPs put him on the leadership ballot on a lark, not expecting him to win against more moderate establishment figures. Then he absolutely crushed the competition, winning 60 percent of the vote, “the biggest mandate in the Labour Party’s 116 year history.”
Despite that mandate, Labour centrists have never accepted Corbyn as a legitimate leader. The result of the Brexit vote is mainly just a pretext for ousting him, which many Labour MPs have wanted to do all long. It was even reported weeks before the Brexit vote that centrist Labour MPs planned a “24-hour blitz” to “topple” Corbyn after the referendum.
The coup has run into one little snag: Corbyn refuses to resign, mostly because he is confident that he’d win another leadership election handily—and polls bear this out.
A poll last month placed him top of the pile in a putative leadership election by a huge margin with 43 percent support. Andy Burnham, who is backing Corbyn and says he won’t run, is closest to him on 10 percent and the only other in double digits.
The plotters make for a pathetic lot: Hilary Benn can’t even muster 5 percent, Margaret Hodge receives close to 0 percent.
Corbyn backers claim one reason no plausible non-Corbyn candidate has emerged is that anti-Corbyn MPs have had a hard time finding a candidate who didn’t support the Iraq War. In an particularly bad bit of timing for those Iraq War-supporting MPs, a parliamentary inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War is set to issue its long-awaited report next Wednesday.
Corbyn backers tell me plotters can't agree because can't find candidate who opposed Iraq war. Claim they need that with Chilcot next week.— joncraigSKY (@joncraig) June 29, 2016
The only hope for Labour’s anti-Corbyn wing is that they can somehow keep him off the ballot entirely when they hold their next leadership election, though doing so could very well fracture the party completely. Mostly, Labour is just thankful that the Tories are dominating today’s headlines.
Are Northern Ireland and Scotland Going to Split Off Now?
Maybe? Sinn Féin has called for a poll on Irish unification, and if the Brexit actually happens, it is exceedingly likely that that Ireland will once again be partitioned, with the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland becoming militarized, and as heavily guarded as it was before the Good Friday Agreement. That could lead to some tensions! A large majority of Northern Irish residents support the status quo, but England just blew it up.
Scotland might be more likely to vote for independence, which they narrowly rejected just a few years ago. But the logistics are a nightmare. Just like remaining part of a non-EU UK turns the Irish border in an EU border, with customs checks and roadblocks, Scotland leaving the UK does the same thing to the Scottish-English border, which has been rather, uh, open for 300 or so years.
There is maybe some sort of scheme by which England and Wales could leave the EU while Scotland and Northern Ireland remain, without formally breaking up the UK; that, combined with the “Norway option,” might lead to a roughly satisfactory-to-most compromise. But never underestimate the incompetence of the Tories, or the propensity of European Union officials to settle on the option that is least desirable to the greatest number of people.
Anyway, that’s how Britain is. Thanks for asking!