In recent weeks, almost every day has seemed to provide a fresh answer to the question, “How much more dysfunctional can the United Kingdom get?” Nearly three years after voting to leave the European Union, there is still no answer on how — or even if — the U.K. will complete its divorce, with one deadline to leave already blown and another looming on April 12. After Prime Minister Theresa May’s painstakingly negotiated “soft Brexit” plan failed to get through Parliament three times, the body took control of the process itself — then proceeded to hit the same brick wall May had. (The latest development, which took place after this interview was conducted: May is seeking another extension from the E.U.)
The whole thing is bewildering to experts, much less to civilians. To try to make sense of what’s happening, Intelligencer spoke with Ian Dunt, the editor of the website politics.co.uk and author of the book Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? about the disaster that is Brexit, the hollowness of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, and the similarities between the Trump presidency and the crisis in Britain.
From the vantage point of someone who isn’t paying full attention, it seems like the Brexit process right now consists of a hugely important vote in Parliament that fails, and then a few days later, another hugely important vote in Parliament that also fails. How would you sum up the madness of what’s going on?
Well, that’s not an easy question to start off with. The government is trying to do something, which is solving the impossible in an undeliverable time table, and it has tried to do so in a manner that is completely inflexible and very opaque. In response — but too late — Parliament has slowly risen up, and decided that it is so fed up with the government that it’s going to try and take control of matters for itself. Essentially, Parliament is trying to turn itself into the government. But it is not having much more luck than the government is, in the short period of time that it’s been doing it. So we have now found ourselves in a swamp of constitutional and diplomatic disaster. And we seem to be completely unable to leverage ourselves out of it.
You called Monday’s scene in Parliament, which resulted in yet another series of “no” votes, a “circular firing squad” and compared it to the final scene of Reservoir Dogs. You also said, on Twitter, that it was “an absolute shitting disaster of a day.” Is it fair to say you’re not optimistic?
I think it was particularly depressing because the guys who were behaving in this way were the people that I usually quite admire. If there is a solution to this, it will come through them.
Brexit is two things, right? First of all, it’s an outcome. But it’s also a process. And the outcome that Brexit takes is a fundamentally right-wing, populist culture war. It’s about putting up walls, trying to stop people coming, trying to cut yourself off to new ideas, trying to separate out your governing structure from many of the kind of international institutions that have been part of global politics since the end of the Second World War. And in that respect, from an American perspective, I would say it is like Trump’s proposed wall in sort of technocratic, grandiose form. It’s like if you made the entirety of your national politics all about building metaphorical walls.
But it’s also a way of looking at politics. It’s a protest. And the protest is essentially to say: There can be no compromise. So for the Brexiteers, compromise is treachery, really. There’s an idea of politics as a sort of Biblical-level event about national identity and personal identity. And so compromise is just treason. You know, Jacob Rees-Mogg is a very prominent Brexiteer. When he opposed Theresa May’s deal, he said it would turn Britain into a slave state. That is a deal, by the way, that he’s now supporting. But in his language, he never showed any moderation or nuance or subtlety at all. Everything is either a disaster, or it is the great victory of the nation, blah blah. There’s never anything about working together on moderate compromise proposals. What was depressing about Monday was that the opponents of Brexit, who wanted a different outcome — they’re liberal, they’re internationalist, they’re rationalist, evidence-based. The manner in which they seem to be behaving seems to me to be exactly the same way that the Brexiteers are acting, which is allowing the best to be the enemy of the good. They’ll only tolerate their ideal outcome.
So the soft Brexiteers, who are basically engaged in damage limitation, rather than reversal of Brexit, refuse to support the people who are trying to reverse the result. The People’s Vote guys were engaged in reversal, rather than damage limitation, and refused to support soft Brexiteers. Now, those positions are complementary. You can, and I do, support them both. And yet they were unable to work together, because they seem to have started to behave in the same kind of puritanical manner of their political opponents.
The lack of compromise, the demonization … this is all pretty familiar territory for American politics in recent decades.
We’re in just as bad a position as you guys, but we seem to have suddenly gotten there over the last three years. We caught up.
It’s nice to have someone else feel our pain. I know predictions are a fool’s game with Brexit, but the deadline is ticking downward to April 12th, which is the current date when the U.K. is supposed to leave. It seems like a no-deal Brexit is likelier than it’s ever been. Do you think that’s the path we’re headed toward?
Nobody knows. I still think the most likely outcome is either May’s deal passing or a longer extension of Article 50, probably to the end of the year or to March of next year — the two sort of fudge-y, extension-y, less dramatic options. The more dramatic ones, though, are no deal, as you say, or revocation of Article 50. Revocation, to me, is just as likely as no deal.
The E.U. has made it clear for about the 20th time that the only deal they’ll approve is the one that May negotiated. And now there’s another vote scheduled on that deal later this week, even though it has failed three times before. Is there any chance this time will be different?
There’s always a possibility. I mean, the deadline’s been close before — remember, we already extended it. We should have left already. So, there’s always a chance. I’m not entirely sure how May’s gonna get the thing in front of the Commons, ’cause there’s added complication. The speaker, John Bercow, basically said, “You can’t just keep on putting the same thing down here without making any changes to it. That’s against the rules.” So, she’s having to find ways of changing it each time. She must have something up her sleeve, but it’s not immediately clear what it is right now.
Perhaps she’ll poison John Bercow?
Yeah, exactly, yeah, yeah. She’s just gonna go old-school, Henry VIII style.
I think some Americans are confused that even though this has clearly been an unmitigated disaster for the Tories and Theresa May, somehow, Jeremy Corbyn is even less popular than her after all this. Has he actually handled this whole crisis even worse?
I don’t know. I don’t know how to make that comparison, I mean, they’ve both been really, really bad. And they share a lot of qualities, actually. They’re kind of inscrutable — you can’t really get any sense of their internal life.
They sort of feel like very hollow politicians, without much going on inside. But certainly neither of them seems to have the capacity for flexibility or for compromise, or actually for self-questioning. Actually, I would go further, and this sounds quite harsh, but — even self-awareness. They’re both very tin-eared and not really capable of imagining what someone else would be thinking if they’re someone who disagrees with them. So, we’re really stuck with these two leaders who are two of the worst leaders that any parties have had, certainly in my lifetime.
What is the mood like in England right now on the street? Is this all people are talking about all the time?
Well, I’m not in a great place to answer that, because I’m a political journalist and I live in North London, so I have a very skewed perspective of what it is that the normal person on the street is talking about. My impression is actually that people are mostly trying to avoid talking about it. Again, the Trump comparison. The thing is, when Trump does things, the average newspaper reader is capable, without too much effort, of understanding what it is that’s happening. If you say, “I’m going to build a wall on the border with Mexico,” everybody understands what that entails. You can have different opinions, but you know what it is. When people start talking about, “are you gonna stay in a customs union?” and then, “are you going to be able to vary your tariffs in a future free trade agreement with a third party,” any emotionally normal person stops listening. It’s just incredibly boring. And people had mostly done that quite early on, with Brexit. Most of the Brexit supporters hate complexity and even allowing for the existence of complexity in the way that politics is conducted. And most of the people that oppose Brexit stop listening because they’re so aghast and horrified by the direction the country is taking.
The other problem is that so many families were divided by Brexit. For a lot of them to function, you know — we’re coming into Easter now, when people will go back home and spend Easter Sunday with their family. And for a lot of these families to have a decent weekend, it is really important that nobody talks about Brexit. Because, overwhelmingly, younger people are coming from the cities and voted to remain, and their parents stayed on and voted to leave. And they fell out hard in 2016. I had friends who it took years before they even really started talking to their parents again. I think it reflects the kind of division we saw with Trump in the U.S.
Yeah, I was gonna say, Thanksgiving here instead of Easter dinner. But it’s similar.
Yeah, yeah. You just try to stay away from that stuff, really. You know, if you go into a pub in North London, you’ll hear people complaining about Brexit. I presume that if you go into the pubs in Sunderland, you’ll hear people complaining about it from a different perspective. Funnily enough, most people — Remain or Leave — are united on the idea that the government is screwing the whole thing up. It’s not entirely fair — anyone would have screwed it up. It’s a fantastically complicated, difficult thing to do. But nevertheless, that is the one bit of community that everybody shares.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.