Great Britain’s Brexit Challenges, and a Lesson for Americans

By John F. Di Leo

December 12, 2018 A.D.

Have you ever hired a militant vegetarian chef to cook you a steak?

Would you hire a pacifist as Commander-in-Chief during wartime?  Or a 600 lb personal trainer to supervise your weight loss program?

This is nothing against vegetarians, pacifists, or weight-challenged folks, by the way; it’s just a means of making a point:

To get a job done, the person charged with implementing it MUST believe in it. It can’t possibly go well if he doesn’t, because the original outline will need details fleshed out.  If the implementer doesn’t believe in it, he or she has practically no chance of doing it the way the hiring party wanted it done.

Our neighbors across the Pond – the voters of Great Britain – are learning that lesson the hard way.

A Surprise Victory

On June 23, 2016, the voters of Great Britain passed the #BREXIT referendum.  It wasn’t a huge margin, but at 52% of a huge 72% turnout election, it was enough… and it was binding.  After over 20 years of growing regrets about full EU envelopment,  the majority of British voters decided that they’d been sold a bill of goods – that the costs of surrendering so much of their sovereignty to the bureaucrats of Brussels and the politicians of Paris and Berlin were simply too severe to be worth the benefits.

The Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, didn’t support the exit process, so he rightly stepped down to allow the election of someone who believed in the mandate.

Unfortunately, that’s not who his party selected.  They picked Theresa May, because her political skills were sufficient to convince her party that she could be entrusted with the job, despite so clearly being personally conflicted on the question.  She was elected Prime Minister, and has supervised the exit strategy ever since.

Where one stands on the big issue isn’t so critical for us over here on this side of the Atlantic; it’s their choice, not ours, of course.  

But their crisis is very instructive to us, as an electorate in our own right, with so many similar challenges of our own, and one very key similarity to theirs in the execution of the public’s big picture goal.

The Brexit vote was a decision by a public who stood up and declared that they wanted their country to set its own import/export regulations, to determine for themselves how many immigrants they could absorb, to decide how their criminal justice system should operate.  And then, once this was accomplished, they naturally wanted to be able to move on from it, for example, to be able to negotiate direct Free Trade Agreements with the United States, with Canada, with Australia and New Zealand, to replace some of the commercial advantages that they knew they’d be giving up in departing the EU.

The Product of Her Negotiations

Theresa May spent two years as Prime Minister, negotiating the break that her electorate demanded, and she recently revealed her exit plan, which was pulled from a Parliamentary vote at the last minute because she didn’t have the votes.

And why didn’t she have the votes?  Because the implementation agreement – to which she had agreed – would have required Great Britain to continue to honor virtually all the EU regulations – on import/export rules, on immigration, criminal justice, etc. – that the public passed Brexit to escape!   Her implementation agreement would even ban Great Britain from negotiating the direct free trade agreements with other countries that they will desperately need afterward, to keep their economy from freefall..

It’s easy to see why the EU would propose such an exit; we always knew that the EU would resist enabling departure (“Once you’re in our gang, you’re in it for life…”), but why on earth would a British Prime Minister have gone along with it?

The answer isn’t that PM May is “on the EU’s side”… it’s not that simple.  She doesn’t think of herself as a traitor to Great Britain at all; she was just brought up to believe that big government, big bureaucracy, and super-governmental organizations are all societal goods, and the bigger, the better.   She is a typical statist of the center, as opposed to a statist of the Left… she’s one who wants to administer that big government more responsibly, more efficiently, more honestly than the Left does… but she doesn’t oppose that big government on principle, as the genuine Right does, at all.

The Conservative Party made a mistake, two years ago, in choosing her.  Theresa May never understood why Brexit passed; she never understood what the public wanted in wresting their sovereignty back.  Theresa May, in fact, might not really understand the concept of “sovereignty” at all.

The Conservative Party should have elected a Prime Minister who truly believed in Brexit, someone who had campaigned vociferously for it, someone who understood WHY the public voted as they did.  Then when “the devil in the details” surfaced, the PM would have known exactly which positions the British electorate had wanted her to fight for.

Great Britain now has a difficult choice to make: they can’t have a do-over of her 2016 election, so they need to see if they can find a politician who can do a better job than she did of managing this botched exit plan.  Thanks to the time wasted by the ill-chosen May, they have only three months to go.  An optimal solution may no longer be possible (which plays perfectly into the EU’s hands, as they want this breakup to be painful enough to dissuade other members from departing).

A Lesson for Americans

Luckily for us, on this side of the Pond, we have never joined such an association, so we don’t have one from which to extricate ourselves.  These United States will therefore not encounter that particular challenge.

But we do have other parallel challenges, many of which have truly come to the forefront in recent years.   For eight years, in election after election, it’s been clear that the American majority has rejected Obamacare and wants a more free-market approach to healthcare.  The majority wants to build a wall and control our borders again, to reduce immigration to levels that allow assimilation again.  The majority wants government to shrink, both in size and in cost; 80 years after the New Deal experiment began, Americans desperately want their government to undo the leviathan’s growth, and return to our Constitutional limitations on government size.

But we have the exact same problem in our electoral choices that the British had in their election of Theresa May.  We have elected intelligent, talented people, good politicians who know their way around Springfield, or Sacramento, or Albany, or Washington, DC… who promise to support the public’s direction on such matters, but then never really follow through.

Maybe sometimes – maybe even oftentimes – it’s not that they don’t want to.  Maybe it’s not what we all suspect – that so many politicians are liars, claiming to be on our side on this or that issue, while really being on the other side.  Perhaps it’s that they really do want to implement what the public wants, but they live in another world, and simply don’t understand us as they believe they do.

When we say we want a border wall, some of our politicians think we’re speaking figuratively, not literally, because to them, a wall seems mean. When we say we hate Obamacare, some of our politicians think that we’re okay with government running our healthcare, but we don’t like the fact that Barack Obama’s name is associated with it, because they truly don’t see anything wrong with the government being empowered to operate death panels, controlling the very health, and therefore the very life and death, of freemen.

And so it is that we have this odd situation in Washington DC today – one of three parties, not two.  We have a Left, and a small Right that stands with President Trump, trying to fulfill their campaign promises, stymied because so much of the Center is larger than it looks, because so many of the alleged Right’s members really do think they’re conservative, but they just don’t understand what it means.

When the Left says “we want to control your business, your school, your church, your healthcare” – they mean it, and we all know they do.   But when the Right says “we want to leave these institutions alone,” too many of them actually mean some gradation along that way.  Too many think that “reasonable regulations” are fine, without realizing that “reasonable” has a very different meaning from person to person, depending on one’s education, environment, and worldview.

We don’t quite have the same problem that the British have with Brexit, because our President clearly means what he says on the big picture issues.   But we have a related problem, one that’s actually even more of a challenge in some ways, because unlike the Parliamentary system, our Congress doesn’t report to our President, so our Congress can stymie a President in a way that Parliament could never stymie a PM.

Donald Trump isn’t quite a party of one, on these issues; there is a limited-government caucus in both the House and Senate, and a limited-government caucus is finally growing in the judiciary.

But the inability to clearly tell who our allies are has become more and more of a problem in trying to deliver on the promises the Right has long made, here on this side of the Pond.

Here’s praying that America learns the lesson that Great Britain is finally learning, likely too late for them:

Don’t send a non-believer to do a believer’s job.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer and international logistics professional, writer and actor.  His columns are regularly found here in Illinois Review.

Originally published in Illinois Review, here.