Brexit increasingly looks like a train crash in slow motion. Watching the British parliament going through consecutive Brexit votes, however, only to end up back where it started, is more like an ever repeating loop of the moments just before and after impact. If nothing else, the whole process has certainly helped confirm utter disbelief as a renewable resource.
Theresa May has caused outrage among her parliamentary colleagues by attacking them for forcing her to seek a Brexit extension from the EU. She told them it was time to make a decision on Brexit – effectively meaning her deal or no deal. It was certainly odd to see the prime minister, who has used numerous tactical delays and postponements, cast blame on everyone apart from herself for the current situation, and her tone was ill advised indeed. However, she was right when she said that the public is “tired of infighting and political games”.
British parliamentarians have engaged in serious exchanges, but they have also gloated, jeered, heckled and booed. They’ve indulged in gleeful laughter, smug condescension and personal attacks. They’ve jockeyed for position to a degree that makes many wonder how seriously they are taking their responsibilities as honourable members of Britain’s Commons. While providing enormous entertainment value to those not directly affected by Brexit, to most of the British public, the events are a tragedy.
There is little hope of stopping the tragedy as long as individual MPs do not agree on a common goal. Publicly they do this, of course, albeit only as interpreted by them on ideological rather than factual grounds. And because their versions of the common good differ so fundamentally, a shared perspective that could align their individual behaviour to achieve collective benefits remains elusive. The tragedy of the Commons, Brexit style, is that they have changed the game to one where they can only win by making all the other parties lose.
The game they are playing is closer to poker. Poker players deal, draw, raise, bluff, call, fold, and deal again, with a constant focus on making their hand the winning one. Promising hope of renegotiating a closed agreement is nothing but a bluff; another visit for talks in Brussels looks like a raise but ends up being a fold; and repeated votes on effectively unchanged proposals and amendments is like playing for an empty pot.
Ideology, image and internal party objectives are trumping the public good. For the Tories, the goal is party unity above all else. For Labour, it’s securing an election.
The only way out is a fundamentally different mindset. The debates in both the Commons and the British media are not the kind of dialogue needed to bring alienated and fragmented factions to participate in a collaborative and constructive conversation. Without a clear assertion of the public voice calling on these players to focus on the public good as expressed and interpreted by the public itself – not by ideologically biased and self-interested MPs or partisan elements of the media – such a mindset will not emerge.
A clear public view on these matters could cut through this intractable mess like the proverbial sword through the Gordian knot. But after years of polemical dispute, pejorative commentary and partisan opinion, it is unlikely that such a view exists, can emerge in the short term, even with another non-binding referendum, or – most depressingly – would even be heard at the Commons’ poker table.
Leading from the bottom up
Alternatively, clear and decisive leadership could help build consensus. The prime minister’s speech, in which she admonished MPs and called on them to support the negotiated deal, will not provide this. And at this stage it is not clear where else such leadership could come from.
What remains as a way out can now only be built from the ground up. Politicians are particularly good at what is needed here: finding common ground, aligning interest, building coalitions, refining messages to connect across different constituencies, all in service of a consensus that allows for a joint way forward. And there are many commonalities. No one wants the UK to suffer economic carnage, international isolation, a slow descent into irrelevance, or any of the other negative scenarios painted by commentators.
Importantly, no one within or outside the UK benefits from external meddling in its sovereign decision making. Yet the apparent failure of the members of the Commons to make responsible decisions in the service of the UK public interest is self-made, and not a result of external influence. That is why the solution to this problem needs to grow out of the balkanised Commons.
MPs of all parties must create and unite behind a credible, valid and accurate version of the public interest, pursue this goal uncompromisingly without fear or favour, and stop trying to complete their own royal flush. A clearer and stronger public voice through petitions or another referendum, better leadership rooted in the public interest, or simply all parties finally committing to solving this mess rather than playing politics as usual could all contribute to resolving this tragedy. Stop playing poker, and start acting like the public servants you were elected to be.