The United Kingdom’s Paradise Lost
In imagining a post-Brexit future, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is acting as if it is entering a world of new, attractive alternatives from which to choose. But today's Conservatives seem to have forgotten what their forebear, Margaret Thatcher, always understood: there will be tradeoffs.
PRINCETON – Goodbye, Britain. Brexit is done. It’s over. Some Britons are waving Union Jacks, and public buildings are illuminated in red, white, and blue. Having dramatically opened up a new space for political maneuver, the country is now celebrating its achievement.
This uplifting mood comes as a surprise. Following the June 2016 referendum, which “Leave” won by a relatively narrow margin (52% to 48%, with a 72% turnout), Brexit became a deeply polarizing issue. The bid to leave the European Union faced many legal challenges, and left Parliament bitterly divided and incapable of approving an exit deal. The public descended into acrimony. To observers around the world, it looked like the United Kingdom was disintegrating.
But then came the strong showing by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservatives in the December 2019 general election, which many interpreted as a “landslide” – an epic shift in the country’s political orientation. Although the Tories actually won only 44% of the vote (with turnout at 67%), we are told that the country has undergone a profound psychological transformation. The sudden emergence of a new consensus, we are told, resolved the issue.