EU Have to See it to Believe it: Making Sense of Brexit and British Politics

Lord Lothian speaking to Georgetown students. Photo Credit: Michelle Shevin-Coetzee.

Lord Lothian faced a difficult task when he came to campus on November 18th for the BWM Center’s latest “coffee chat.” In one hour, Lothian, a peer in the British House of Lords, shared his perspective on Brexit and the state of domestic politics in the United Kingdom. Three and a half years since the British people voted in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the debate for how to do so continues apace. To explain the situation, one that seemingly takes a new turn each day, Lord Lothian drew on his formidable political experience, having served as Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary, and, most recently, Shadow Secretary of State for Defense. 

Lord Lothian began by placing the Brexit debate within a wider historical context, reminding the audience that today’s divisions over the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union are not entirely new; there were significant divisions within Britain when the country first joined the then-European Economic Community in 1973. Unlike the past, however, Lord Lothian observed that politics is no longer about left and right, a dynamic that created stability. “We now have a situation…where nobody is certain who stands for what,” he continued, arguing that Labour is particularly divided on Europe with some Members of Parliament advocating a second referendum and others not. In fact, he contended, there is no consensus regarding Europe within any of Britain’s major political parties, the Conservatives included, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Lothian’s argument is particularly striking as the United Kingdom finds itself in the midst of a general election. He explained that Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the election in order to resolve the Brexit stalemate but Lord Lothian himself remains skeptical whether it will in fact change the situation. After all, Lord Lothian reminded the audience, the deal the Prime Minister is trying to pass in the House of Commons is only “the first part of the European question.” Here he is referring to the so-called ‘divorce proceedings,’ whereby the United Kingdom and the European Union focus on issues relating to the ‘divorce bill,’ citizens’ rights, and, the stickiest of all, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The next phase, focused on the future relationship, he argued, is likely to be as difficult as the first.

As the United Kingdom reflects on the divorce proceedings, what lessons should London draw upon as it considers how to approach discussions on the future relationship? Britain, he argued, was not sufficiently prepared for the first phase of negotiations and should use this as a cautionary tale for the second. Lord Lothian also suggested that the United Kingdom and the European Union should aim to make quick progress on defense and intelligence in particular.

It is here that Lord Lothian articulated what he views as the key to the future relationship, arguing that it would be “wrong to think of this [Brexit] as Britain getting out of Europe.” The United Kingdom, Lord Lothian maintained, is part of Europe and should continue to engage closely with the continent. To craft such a relationship, he wished that European policymakers would return their focus to a “Europe of nations where they work together on matters of common interest.” This would involve, in his opinion, a Europe on a “much freer and voluntary basis,” as opposed to today’s shift toward a “United States of Europe.”

Without a brighter vision for the future, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe, Lord Lothian fears the continued growth of anti-establishment movements. He lamented that “politicians have yet to work out how to handle that” and, going forward, will need to figure out how to “structure” politics. Lord Lothian suggested that these anti-establishment movements derive from a sentiment among pockets of the population that “nobody is listening to us,” whether that is the ‘Yellow Vests’ in France at the grass roots level or the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom at the political level.

For Britain, in particular, Lord Lothian worries whether the system can cope. In the Brexit debate, for example, he argued that Parliament has so far only ‘said no,’ voting down multiple withdrawal agreements, but not learned how to ‘say yes.’ The ensuing turmoil has bored the British people “absolutely stupid” as the “whole of the political system [is] concentrating on effectively nothing else.” No matter one’s perspective on Brexit, there is no doubt that the process is consuming significant bandwidth within the British government.

Perhaps in a reflection of the Brexit debate itself, some of the topics that sparked the liveliest discussion in the question and answer session were those beyond its immediate confines. From the potential for an independent Scotland to reform in the House of Lords to the pride of serving constituents as a Member of Parliament, there were many topics to discuss further, but simply not enough time. Despite the divisive nature of the British political debate, however, Lord Lothian remained hopeful. “Water finds its own level,” he twice suggested. Over the weeks and months following the upcoming election, we should find out.

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