The dis-United Kingdom’s Brexit muddle

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe
Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

British parliamentarians, as Livy once observed of ancient Romans, can bear neither their ills nor their cure.

Slaves to the restless results of a reckless referendum, members of Parliament can’t agree on any plan that keeps the United Kingdom in any part of the European Union arrangement. But neither do they want to brave the economy-battering consequences sure to come if they leave without a deal. They are, it’s fair to say, mired in a mega-muddle.

None more so than Prime Minister Theresa May. Her leadership arsenal empty of all but pebbles, she has even had rejected her offer to lop off her own head to advance her Brexit deal. So on Tuesday, May declared she would seek a (second) Brexit delay, to push departure beyond April 10, giving her more time to bumble fecklessly about. Um, make that, secure a deal. Why, this time, she’ll even deign to confer with the opposition! (Labour, that is, not her many enemies in her own Conservative Party.)


Ah, the miracles of the 11th hour.

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If would all be funny if it weren’t so sad. But if Parliament lurches into a no-deal Brexit, Britain could eventually find itself not just woebegone but quartered. Such was the threat on Monday from Ian Blackford , leader of the Scottish National Party. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted strongly – 62 percent — to remain in the EU on that fateful day back in June 2016.

After four Monday votes in search of a way forward failed to find one, Blackford rose to issue this warning: “It is becoming increasingly clear to the people of Scotland that if we want to secure our future as a European nation, then we are going to have to take our own responsibilities. . . . The day is coming where we will determine our own future, and it will be as an independent country.”

The other national entity that voted to remain is Northern Ireland, where the inability to resolve the question of a post-Brexit border with the Republic of Ireland remains a surpassing concern. Restoration of a hard border could mean slipping back toward the tense times of the Troubles. Yet if the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland will in all likelihood have to have a staffed, goods-checking border with Ireland, an EU member.

The only alternatives remain unpalatable even at this late date. One is keeping the entire UK in the EU customs union (that is, without tariffs with EU countries and with common tariffs on non-EU members), something unacceptable to the adamant Brexit Conservatives. The other is keeping Northern Ireland in that union. That, however, would require some kind of trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, which is unacceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party, partner in the Conservative’s coalition government.


And yet, despite the complexities, the ineptitude, the posturing, and the machinations, Monday’s parliamentary votes did show some options starting to emerge. Having the UK remain in the EU customs union failed by only three votes. Holding a second referendum to confirm any Brexit deal approved by Parliament failed by only 12 votes (and, with 280 ayes, got the highest of all the tentative proposals).

Given those results, if the various rival politicians could put their ambitions in their back pockets, it’s possible to imagine a least-worst-case alternative emerging: approval of a Britain-stays-in the-customs-union plan, with voters given the ability to approve or reject that at referendum. Why, by employing ranked-choice voting, which is already used in Scotland and Northern Ireland, British voters could have a range of choices — from remain in the EU to a no-deal Brexit, to any parliamentary plan — with an assurance that the ultimate outcome would most closely reflect the wishes of today’s electorate.

Some staunch Brexiteers, unabashed by the bankruptcy of their previous Brexit-will-be-a-breeze assurances, would growl about ignoring the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum results. But in fact, going back to the voters now that issues are fully fleshed out would be a renewal, not a betrayal, of British democracy.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.