What Intelligent, Educated Americans Think Of Brexit

Here's Brexit, to date, as summarised by The New Yorker.

It's being going since 1925, a beacon for informed comment among less-informed Americans. (America is on average the least educated nation in the G7. Some of them can't find their own state on a map, others think that 'Central America' means Nebraska.)

And now their comment piece on Brexit has been noted as in the top five read articles this year.

In the midst of the split-right-down-the-middle battleground of British media - polarised as either Pro Brexit or Against It - some of the comments they make, from a point of view of a concerned but neutral relative across the pond, are damning.

Some excerpts are here.

How Brexit Will End

Until recently, it was possible to believe that there was a middle way, or to be in denial that a decisive moment would come. That’s no longer the case.

Boris Johnson said, “I’d rather be dead in a ditch” than seek an extension.

When does uncertainty become the worst condition of all? This fall, more than three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, no one was sure what form Brexit would take, what kind of relationship we would have with our nearest neighbors, or whether the whole thing could still be called off.

But everyone knew that Brexit was unlikely to happen by Halloween.

Johnson, a flamboyant Brexiteer, wanted to rip up May’s agreement, but there didn’t seem to be time to start over. The gulf between what the government said was going to happen and what seemed possible, let alone sensible, grew wider by the day. You could scroll through an article on your phone, full of the reasons that Brexit would not occur on October 31st ... and then be interrupted by an ad from the government telling you to get ready.

Johnson asked the Queen to shut down Parliament; the Supreme Court opened it up again. The pound fell. Death threats multiplied. Politicians quoted poetry. A third of British adults said that Brexit had affected their mental health. A man in a clown outfit stood outside the gates of Parliament shouting, “Save our bendy bananas!

Elements of the Brexit crisis have been there since the beginning. The referendum did not specify what Brexit would look like. The constitution stretched and strained. The government struggled to cope.

Since taking office, Johnson has sought to channel the nationalist impulses that brought about the Brexit vote. He talks winningly about the country’s future outside the deadening regulations and pooled sovereignty of the E.U.

But Johnson’s political career has been marked by lies and evasions. It is hard to know how much he makes up as he goes along.

Johnson’s high-risk approach to Brexit has been defined by martial imagery and language that summons memories of the Second World War.

Opposition M.P.s forced the release of an internal report warning of interruptions to the supply of fresh food, fuel, and medicine, as well as potential job losses, nursing-home closures, and clashes between fishing boats at sea. “Protests and counter-protests will take place across the UK,” the report cautioned.

The poor would suffer the most.

But the “Get Ready for Brexit” ads rolled on. “I’ve never experienced politics like it,” Dominic Grieve, one of the purged Conservative M.P.s, told me. “It’s a complete departure from U.K. norms, and I’m afraid it will leave a trail of damage.

The fury infected all sides. “We are now irreconcilably split for a generation,” Roland Rudd, the chairman of the People’s Vote Campaign, which advocates for a new referendum, told me. “I don’t pretend that reversing this madness is going to bring us together. Honestly, it won’t.”

Until Johnson came to power, it had been possible to believe that there was a middle way on Brexit, or to be in denial that a decisive moment would ever come.

That was no longer the case.

“It is a complete mystery how something that was not a high-priority issue can become in three years your defining political identity,” the M.P. Rory Stewart told me. During the spring, Stewart, who served as a minister under Johnson in the Foreign Office, stood as a moderate candidate in the Conservative-leadership contest. Three months later, he was among those thrown out of the Party. “It is peculiar. It is fascinating,” Stewart said. “We are all sitting in the center with nothing.”

And the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts that, under Johnson, government borrowing will be double the amount previously estimated, and that public spending will rise at its fastest rate in a decade.

Why was it so difficult to agree on a Brexit deal?

The word that defined Theresa May’s struggles - and that became a metaphor, a pretext, a synecdoche for everything that was impossible - was “backstop.” Early in Britain’s negotiations with the E.U., which began in June, 2017, the bloc insisted on setting a default relationship - a backstop - in the unlikely event that trade talks failed. For the island of Great Britain, the options were clear enough. For the island of Ireland, the problem was close to metaphysical.

Until the late nineties, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which has almost three hundred crossing points, was a frontier guarded by soldiers in watchtowers. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the Troubles, gave citizens of Northern Ireland the right to identify as Irish, British, or both. It also committed the two governments to an ambitious program of coöperation, which was made simpler because they were both members of the E.U.

Now, twenty years later, when you call for an ambulance near the border, it can come from either side. Fifty-six per cent of voters in Northern Ireland opposed Brexit.

May’s backstop was her undoing. Everyone found a reason to hate it. E.U. officials described it as a “swimming pool” of rules, in which Britain would be partially submerged and Northern Ireland would be in the deep end. For Remainers, the arrangement captured the pointlessness of Brexit. The country would continue to obey E.U. laws, but without having a say in their formulation. For Brexiteers, May’s backstop seemed to reveal the real intentions of European officials and the British deep state: to never let the country leave at all.

Johnson came to power promising to scrap the backstop. On August 21st, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, offered him thirty days to solve the conundrum. Johnson described it as a “blistering timetable” and then seemed to ignore it.

(Although in early September, Cummings was quoted in the British media describing the negotiations as a “complete sham,” designed to run down time. Cummings has denied saying this.)

Johnson has said only a few lines about his new plan for Northern Ireland. “This is a compromise by the U.K.,” he said. “And I hope very much that our friends understand that and compromise in their turn.” Then he asked the Party Conference Faithful about a no-deal exit: “Are we ready for it?” The hall cheered. “Yes, we are,” Johnson affirmed.

The details of his proposal were published a few hours later. It was a dizzying scheme - even by the technical standards of the Brexit talks - with ad-hoc customs checks away from the border and other checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. Instead of a hard border, there would be two “half borders.” The whole instrument would rely on the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the territory’s fractious parliament, which had not sat for almost three years.

Irish officials had a response. “We have taken down barriers,” they said. “Why would we put up a new one?”

It also contained the biggest risk of going wrong. In a no-deal scenario, both sides agreed, a hard border would be inevitable, and violence would likely return. “That’s where we are,” a former senior civil servant said. “That’s the bugger of the situation.”

Johnson has now abandoned the D.U.P., the only party in Northern Ireland that supported him.

Brexit is an uncanny political process because it is an inversion of the way that things were supposed to go. The world was becoming only more connected; money and people flowed. Europe was leading the experiment. And then a population said no. Being a member of the E.U. cost less than two per cent of Britain’s national budget. Most of us did not care. But, once the question was asked, it became fundamental, and the prelude to every future question. Choosing Brexit meant that we would diverge. We would diverge from Europe, and we would diverge from one another.

Two days after Johnson made his deal, he brought it to Parliament for a yes-or-no vote. The House of Commons sat on a Saturday for the first time since the outbreak of the Falklands War. Johnson rose to his feet just after 9:30 a.m. His hands were still. He found a sober tone that often eludes him. His deal, he continued, represented a chance to “unite the warring instincts in us all.

It didn’t count for much. In the afternoon, opposition M.P.s, along with many of the Conservatives purged from the Party the previous month, refused to approve Johnson’s deal until the underlying legislation necessary for Brexit had passed. That night, the Prime Minister was forced to send a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, requesting another extension.

He didn’t want to be dead in a ditch, after all.

But then, in a cover note, Johnson said that he still believed it was possible for Britain to leave on October 31st.

With nine days to go, he tried a final time. The government attempted to force through the entire Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Ministers were still shaky on the details. Nobody pretended that the population would be better off. D.U.P. members were furious. “What I don’t take is a Prime Minister who thinks I can’t read,” Sammy Wilson, the Party’s Brexit spokesperson, told the chamber. The debate ended in a Pyrrhic victory for Johnson. At 7 p.m., M.P.s voted for the law to move forward - the first time that Parliament had indicated its support for any form of Brexit - fifty-two to forty-eight per cent.

Johnson sat on the front benches, in the middle of it all. He crossed his arms and hugged himself. He nodded his head up and down and side to side. He raised his legs and banged his heels against the carpet. But the way ahead was still blocked. “We will pause this legislation,” Johnson said.

In the space of a few weeks this autumn, people diverged. Britain’s constitutional fabric suffered, too, in ways it is too early to understand.

But, in the process, Johnson clarified to a great extent what Brexit is going to look like and feel like.

The shape of the future is now visible. The uncertainty has receded. The worst is most likely yet to come.