Waiting for Brexit | The New Yorker
Friday is the day on which, if everything had gone according to plan, the United Kingdom was supposed to leave the European Union. The deed was set for eleven o’clock at night, just as the pubs are about to close, with landlords calling out, “Last orders!” Unfortunately, the departure plan has been mislaid. No one is quite sure where it is now, though rumors persist that, during an early stage of diplomatic negotiations, it was rolled up and used as a dog chew for a schnauzer puppy.
As a result, the nation now finds itself in a state of paralysis, and Parliament in a state of disarray—“the loud misrule / of Chaos,” as Milton put it, in “Paradise Lost.” He knew whereof he spoke, having lived through the English Civil War and defended the execution of King Charles I. Given such a precedent, the most surprising aspect of British life, since the referendum of 2016, has been the reluctance of the divided land to enter into open warfare. Plenty of bad blood exists between the factions, but, so far, very little has been spilled. As for the reigning monarch, she is at less risk of execution than ever, presiding serenely and, as custom demands, noncommittally over the tumult that rages beneath her. If there were a public vote on decapitation, it would be Members of Parliament, rather than the sovereign, who would likely lose their heads. Not that such a loss would prevent them from pronouncing on Brexit, since most of them appear to have a wide choice of orifices through which to talk.
Anyone who claims to have figured out precisely what has occurred in British politics over the last two and a half years is a liar. Or a certified ideologue, with only one flag to fly. The honorable option now, as ever, is to own up to one’s confusion—to accept that the world is too multifarious, or just too mad, to hold securely in one’s grasp. This was the attitude famously adopted by Lord Palmerston, who was twice Prime Minister and three times Foreign Secretary at the high noon of Victorian power. Even his diplomatic skills, however, were defeated by some disputes, not least the dreaded question of Schleswig-Holstein. This concerned two disputed duchies, Danish royalty, and the claims of what was then called the German Confederation, and, as Palmerston said (or is said to have said), “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.” Such, almost certainly, will be the fate of Brexit.
Onlookers, both in Britain and abroad, have suggested that the situation would be funny if it weren’t so utterly tragic. Wrong. It would be tragic if it weren’t so utterly funny. They have also lamented the fact that Britain has become an international laughing stock, as if this were an unprecedented state of affairs. Again, wrong. Britain has a long and distinguished tradition of being laughed at, all the more so because it has often led the laughing. If you think that the Houses of Parliament, and their chronic inability to stand on ceremony without falling off, have never been mocked before, listen to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” first staged in 1882:
And while the House of Peers withholds
Its legislative hand,
And noble statesmen do not itch
To interfere with matters which
They do not understand,
As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays
As in King George’s glorious days!
That mixture of robust incomprehension and woozy, postprandial nostalgia still swills around today, more potent than ever, although, on this occasion, it is the House of Commons, rather than the House of Lords, that has provided the bulk of the entertainment. The mantle of televised fame has descended upon the singular figure of the Speaker, John Bercow: an ululating Gollum, whose grins and scowls seem to come and go at random, and whose rhetoric grows ever more baroque. Maybe it is meant to match his ties. Members of Parliament, however, cannot get enough of him. They clamor to catch his eye, bobbing up and down in the hope that he will graciously allow them to vent their peculiar thoughts.
All this, you could argue, is standard parliamentary practice. But it has grown perceptibly more manic in recent weeks, and the past few days, crammed with emergency rescue plans and arcane votes, have transformed the floor of the House into a human hive, pullulating with excited drones. The charming thing is that some M.P.s genuinely believe that ordinary citizens are gazing upon these shenanigans, thrilled to be educated in the age-old rubric of Parliament and bursting with pride at the spectacle of democracy in full spate. Nice idea. In truth, the average Briton has taken one look, sighed with exasperation, and thought, What a bunch of nutsos; I wouldn’t trust them to run a hot bath.
At 11 P.M. on Friday night, therefore, nothing will happen, in a big way. There will be no tearing sound as the United Kingdom is ripped free of its European obligations. No sobs of lamentation as the upper middle classes, taut with vacation anxiety, wonder whether they will ever see that lovely Tuscan villa with the citrus trees again. No roars of gratified joy as fifty-two per cent of the voting population, the ones who chose to quit the E.U., see their dream of independence fulfilled and, with it, their right to catch whatever fish they damn well want. Save our soles!
As it is, the end game has not ended. The game goes on, and a decision on Britain’s future has been delayed. There was a hope that it might be held back until May 22nd, which would permit a modicum of calm consideration, but the withdrawal agreement over which the Prime Minister has labored for so long, and which has already been voted down twice by the House of Commons, has just enjoyed its third and final defeat. The deadline has now shifted to April 12th, guaranteeing a mere fortnight of additional pandemonium. Such fun. As so often in life, nothing about the ordeal is worse than the hanging around, and the plight of the United Kingdom, right now, resembles that of a midshipman in Lord Admiral Nelson’s fleet, lying in the sick bay with a wounded arm. You know what’s coming; all you can do is take a swig of rum, grip a stick between your teeth, and wait for the amputation to begin.
There are doughty souls, needless to say, who refuse to give up or give in, and they brim with ideas for redeeming the nation’s sins. One proposal is to revoke Article 50. This is the clause in the Treaty on European Union that was triggered by Parliament and Theresa May, in March, 2017, thus formally declaring that, no hard feelings, but the Brits would be getting the hell out of town. The urge to undo Article 50, like the campaign to stage a second referendum, is fairly widespread but technically hard to implement without the aid of Doc Brown, from “Back to the Future.” In these strange times, the art of wishing things away, and of backtracking on reality, exerts a fatal allure. Face it: at some point, somehow, a deal for the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union will have to be reached. There might, of course, be no deal at all, although that void will itself constitute a sort of devil’s deal—an unthinkable prospect, for some, but it’s always worth recalling the tranquil words of Dr. Fagan, in Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” who admitted, “I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish.”
But what can we expect of those fiascos? Here, for the benefit of anyone who feels bewildered by events, as well as all the humongous non-events, in the United Kingdom, is a brief guide to what happens next:
Interim penalties laid down under Ruling 314, Subsection 82.2 of the European Union Transitional/Extrusional Declaration will be served upon the United Kingdom, at a time not later than the date noted in Subsection 61.4, though not earlier than the date provisionally established in line with the Luxembourg Protocols of 1999 (Time and/or Space). So, at least that’s clear.
Theresa May must step down at once. She will then step back up again. She will subsequently get up and, pending parliamentary approval, get on up. Her next move, after due consultation with her Cabinet, will be to stay on the scene. The Speaker will grant her secondary powers to get on up. Like a sex machine.
Article 50 will be formally merged with Area 51. Illegal aliens will thenceforth be permitted entry into the United Kingdom, but they will only be granted citizenship and access to health care if they can undertake to improve British trading relations with Tatooine, Naboo, and Hoth.
On the express instructions of Buckingham Palace, and, in accordance with the will of the British people, a new amendment will be tabled in the House of Commons, designed to break the stalemate. This will be known as GOWIFFS, or Get On With It For Fuck’s Sake. Members of Parliament will be locked in the chamber, with a few kegs of beer and a range of salty snacks, and forbidden to leave until they have made up their minds. Whatever conclusion they arrive at, regardless of its contents, let alone its coherence, will then, automatically, become law.
Riots in France will topple the government of Emmanuel Macron, creating a legislative vacuum, inciting civil strife, and causing a surge in support for the National Front. The Italian economy will collapse, and no action by the European Central Bank will be able to assist. The Euro will plummet. Angela Merkel will take a hike. And, suddenly, the woes of the United Kingdom won’t seem like such a big deal—or such a big no deal—after all. Give the whole thing a couple of years, in short, and you can forget all about it. Brexit? What Brexit?