Brexit Institute News

Brexit and Pandora’s Box

Gianfranco Pasquino (University of Bologna)

“Get Brexit Done” , the highly successful Conservative slogan, can be interpreted in two rather different ways. It is a commitment made by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is also a mandate given to him by the British voters. Johnson has received a resounding mandate and will have to work hard too fulfill his commitment in the next few months. Hopefully, he will duly be held accountable by the voters.

The British “Constitution” (I refer to the famous book by Walter Bagehot, 1867) has performed admirably. After having unsuccessfully tried to manipulate the rules of the game, among other minor violations, shutting Parliament, Johnson has been rewarded by several factors that pertain to the British political system. First, to a large extent the incumbent has the power to dissolve Parliament and call new elections at the time that is most convenient for him. In this instance he was decisively  helped by Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. Second, in many, if not most, constituencies, Conservative candidates were blessed by tactical voting deliberately made possible by Nigel Farage. The leader of UKIP  has sacrificed his, in any case difficult, access to Westminster to the uppermost goal of obtaining Brexit. Third, tactical voting has not worked for the parties (and candidates) opposing Brexit. Finally, in contrast with Johnson’ clear stand, Corbyn’s statements and campaign were often confused and appeared shaped by expediency.

The Labour leader practically did not offer any alternative to what Johnson was advocating. In a way, one could say that the old English expression “better the devil we know” influenced the behavior of many voters who chose Johnson also because quite a number of them were unable to make sense of Corbyn’s stands and Labour policies. No wonder that what was known of the Labour “devil” has appealed to the smallest number of British voters in the last thirty years. The incumbent prevailed and the (Labour) opposition is in shambles. Even though  the mandate that Johnson has received does not come from an absolute majority of voters, one cannot nourish any hope for a second referendum.

The December 12 elections also were a referendum and the pro-European Union activists have to accept its outcome and the sad fact that British public opinion does not lend its support to an option other than Brexit. Perhaps, the pro-Europeans could start immediately to monitor what the Prime Minister does, does not, does poorly in his (re)negotiations with EU authorities. From the beginning, they should try vigorously to enforce political accountability at the same time constructing an alternative narrative of what the European Union really is and what the kind of exit desired by the Prime Minister will mean for Britain. Leaving aside, but not underestimating, all the complex elements having to do with trade negotiations and freedom of movement. I will only stress that along the road away from Bruxelles there are two major problems to be solved: the Northern-Ireland backstop and the preference for Remain repeatedly and massively expressed by Scotland. Neither will be easily solved and I tend to believe that quite a number of Europeans would be very supportive of a Scottish independence referendum that may lead to membership in the European Union. One should not be worried by the not so farfetched outcome, but by the tensions and conflicts that will inevitabile accompany the process from its start.

Perhaps, the most fundamental lesson coming from the British elections was already known, though not fully learned. To leave the European Union is not easy. It requires time and energy. It is very costly. Now we may add that leaving the European Union may open a Pandora’s box from where other up to then relatively muted problems and ills will spring. What has taken place in the mother of all parliamentary political systems and the beacon of majoritarian democracies is something that the European “sovereignists” (those who would like to  recover their supposedly lost sovereignty by withdrawing from the European Union) are already seriously pondering.

The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog

Gianfranco Pasquino is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Bologna

Photo credit: Boris returns at Number 10. Number 10 via a BY-NC-ND licence.