Disgust, anger, a feeling of betrayal. These were just some of the reactions among pro-Brexit protesters outside Westminster Palace to the ongoing parliamentary chaos over Britain’s vote to depart from the European Union. The demonstrations were held on March 29, the day the UK should have finally been leaving the EU, almost three years after the groundbreaking vote in which Leave triumphed over Remain by a margin of four points. Instead, it had become the day it was made clear that Britain would not be leaving the EU—at least not for now, as Parliament had agreed to an extension of the process.
A few weeks later, it does not look any better. The House of Commons has become a dysfunctional body unable to make serious decisions. For a parliament where over 80 percent of members—including all Tory as well as Labour MPs—were elected in 2017 on platforms that promised to fulfill Brexit, this is bewildering to say the least. Nonetheless, Parliament has rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement three times by wide margins. And it’s been unable to approve an alternative in so-called “indicative votes,” which have taken place twice.
To break the impasse, May has teamed up with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to craft a deal that can only be described as Brexit in Name Only—one that could prove even worse than just staying in the EU. In the meantime, an even longer extension seems to be in order, and the UK could actually end up participating in May’s European elections. Whether Brexit will ever happen is a question still awaiting an answer.
Looking beyond whatever the Brexit date ends up being, the chaos that has ensued over the last few months can only be seen as destructive for a country that has already suffered a societal split between rural and urban areas, working class and elites. Another way of looking at this divide is, as David Goodhart famously described it in his 2016 book The Road to Somewhere, between the “somewheres”—those who want strong, stable communities and identities—and the “anywheres”—those who consider themselves “Global Citizens.” The former tend to feel alienated in our globalized politics and economy; the latter regard localism and even national identity as mere relics of the past and have profited from globalization and supranational organizations. Somewheres, as Goodhart notes, are mostly working-class, rural folks, while Anywheres are urban and highly educated, influential in today’s political scene.
The Brexit vote was seen as a major rebuke to Anywheres by Somewheres, a victory of the local over the international. Sure, many Brexit voters were (rightly) in favor of leaving the EU so they could engage more fully with the rest of the world, becoming a so-called “Global Britain.” But at least politically, it seems as though voters had had enough of being governed by an organization hundreds of miles away, where decisions are usually made discreetly and in a bureaucratic and only semi-democratic way. Under this arrangement, the British had been losing ever more sovereignty over their lives and their governance.
Considering this and Westminster’s attempt to undo Brexit altogether, it is not surprising that the British feel betrayed by the political class. A recent poll showed that nine out of 10 pro-Brexit voters think they have been deserted by lawmakers. Faith in politics is for many at an all-time low. Even more significantly, every region in England and Wales other than London would prefer to exit without a deal rather than stay any longer. Seventy-two percent of Tory voters think no deal would be the best outcome.
Westminster has taken a different path, ignoring the will of the people. Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP, is a case in point. Despite having proclaimed before the referendum that “you have to take the decision that’s been made” and that Parliament shouldn’t try “to unravel a decision that the public have made,” Cooper has directed the attempt over the last few months to do just that. She’s fought to extend the process by demanding a second referendum and even to call off Brexit completely. And she’s hardly the only one.
Ultimately this has pitted Britain’s political elite against the very people who voted them into power on the promise to deliver Brexit. It is true that a politician should follow his or her conscience, not simply what a majority of constituents think. Edmund Burke made this clear when he noted that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment.”
But by arrogantly brushing away the wish of the people because it would put Britain on “the wrong side of history,” the political class has shown that it’s lost touch with those it’s supposed to be representing.
This divide will not vanish even as Brexit (hopefully) does and some other topic comes to dominate UK political discussion. Instead, having lost faith in politics, Britain will end up as an even more riven country, with politicians detached from their constituents. Ironically, that detachment is one reason why the Brits voted to leave the EU in the first place.
Kai Weiss is a research fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute.