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The Brexit Tragicomedy

With the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union looming on the horizon, party politics has become increasingly dysfunctional and divisive. But while Brexit will be bad for the EU, and even more so for the UK, it could also serve as a cautionary tale for other countries in need of a domestic political realignment.

PRINCETON – As the rest of the world looks on with a mixture of amusement and pity, British politics in the age of Brexit has come to resemble a soap opera. Can the chaos that is descending on the United Kingdom be good for Europe, or even for Britain? Perhaps, but only in the sense that train wrecks yield lessons about what to avoid.

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British political actors know they are putting on a performance, and they speak candidly about life imitating art. Their model is the backstabbing drama of Game of Thrones or the dark comedy of House of Cards (the British version, not the long-winded American imitation that has been canceled in the wake of sexual-assault allegations against its star, Kevin Spacey).

Unlike in Hamlet, where everyone ends up dead, and an outsider (Fortinbras) shows up to reestablish normality, modern fictionalized political dramas never have a satisfying resolution. The Brexit drama, then, is faithfully imitating art: it cannot have anything but a messy conclusion.

Brexit is not just a political upheaval; it is a revolution. Historically, radical political realignments have been rather rare in British politics. One example is the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which produced a two-party system comprising Whigs, who supported the new settlement, and Tories, who resisted it.

That system lasted for more than a century, until the 1840s, when Whig became synonymous with Liberal, and Tory with Conservative. But then, in 1846, the Conservative Party split over curtailing protective tariffs for grain, which was bad for the party’s rural farming base, but good for manufacturing, and for society generally. The resulting political balance lasted for almost a century, until the 1920s, when the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the alternative to Conservatism.

Arguably, another political realignment may be past due. In the 2000s, British Prime Minister Theresa May played a crucial role in cleaning up the Conservative Party’s image as the “nasty party.” But her Brexit strategy, in which she has avoided taking any clear positions, has transformed the party into something even worse: a dishonest, divided, weak political cabal whose decisions could prove lethal.

Brexit transcends the old two-party divide in British politics. The Conservative Party’s bloc in Parliament includes a small minority who regard Brexit as a disaster, others who want a well-negotiated compromise, and a substantial group who oppose any compromise and have embraced the idea of a clean break with the European Union.

Labour is similarly divided. The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is hostile to the EU, because it could prevent him from implementing his utopian socialist program. At the same time, many Labour MPs recognize that the EU plays a central role in providing economic opportunities and social mobility for British citizens.

Because no fundamental issues separate pro-EU Conservatives from pro-EU Labourites, practical cross-party cooperation has started to occur. But for any such parliamentary alliance to have democratic legitimacy, it will have to present itself not just as a coalition of likeminded MPs, but as a new political party, with a program to confront realistically the challenges of technological change and globalization.

Similar shifts have occurred in other European countries when established parties and traditions fell apart. In the 1990s, Italy’s largely bipartisan system disintegrated when Christian Democracy was engulfed by corruption scandals and the Communist Party was pulled apart by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Italian politics has been plagued by instability ever since.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s new political party, La République en Marche !, has effectively supplanted the old center-right Gaullist party, Les Républicains, as well the center-left Socialists. Still, Macron rightly recognizes that his overhaul of French politics will not succeed unless it is matched at the European level. If a Europe-wide shift does happen, it will owe much to the cautionary tale playing out in Britain.

In Germany, the breakdown of coalition negotiations between the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union, the Free Democrats, and the Greens suggests that a political realignment may be necessary there, too.

In fact, realignments may have a better chance of succeeding elsewhere in Europe than in the UK. After all, Britain’s malaise runs much deeper than party politics. Brexit has ushered in a revolution in a country without a revolutionary tradition. Withdrawing from the EU will require uprooting a thicket of complex legal and institutional frameworks, around which most political norms and conventions revolve.

So far, every alternative arrangement that has been proposed has been problematic. For example, if Britain liberalizes its trade and regulatory policies, British workers could end up worse off than they were under the EU regime. Inevitably, every concrete step out of the EU is bound to lead to deeper factionalism.

Looking ahead, there are two possible scenarios for British politics. The first is the Hamlet scenario, in which the chaos continues until the UK crashes out of the European single market and customs union. The stage will be littered with political corpses, and an economic disaster will ensue.

In the second scenario, common sense prevails: Macron-style pragmatism takes root in Britain, supplanting the Poujade-style populism that fueled the anti-EU “Leave” campaign. This assumes that Macronism succeeds at the European level, so that it can serve as a foil to the dysfunctional, distorted politics of the United States, Russia, and Turkey, and to the new instability in Germany.

That outcome would also be Shakespearian, recalling nothing so much as All’s Well that Ends Well – one of the bleakest “comedies” in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

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