Britain’s dirty laundry, By Dele Agekameh


‘Nigeria may have not attained the status of the British government or what is ordinarily known of the strength of its democracy, but as we are continually haunted by the shadow of a disintegration of our union, perhaps people need to understand some of the unsavoury intricacies of such an event, which is now  on full display in The UK’

Many think of Britain as one of the most advanced democracies in the world. One has often marveled at how the British parliament manages to finely marry the vagaries of party politics with the practice of direct democracy and indirect democracy in parliament. This is why it is shocking to see how the British government has lost its luster in the past couple of years, following the historic decision of the British people to leave the European Union, EU. The exit process has been a big embarrassment for the UK.

Brimming with confidence after a conservativeparty sweep of parliament in 2015, immediate past British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was faced with domestic groans over the burden of continental influence on British affairs. With key concerns about immigration and the huge financial commitment of UK to the European Union, there were calls for an exit from the EU, a drive known simply as “Brexit”. The Brexit drive had supporters in Cameron’s conservative party, the labour party, and others, as Euroscepticism bubbled to the surface of British society.

Cameron disagreed with the calls, fancying his own ability to negotiate a deal that addresses the major concerns, while still keeping UK in the EU. His attempts at negotiation soon met a rocky patch. The resulting criticism of opponents, in and outside his own party, drove Cameron to seek the comfort of public opinion,  perhaps, to show that he had the confidence of the people, and also to demonstrate to Brussels how close UK could come to leaving the EU, in the absence of a better deal. It was a terrible gamble, one which he lost, and, as some say, one which UK still stands to lose from.

In acknowledgement of his grave miscalculation, Cameron resigned his position, paving the way for the incumbent British Prime Minister, Theresa May, who accepted the challenge of steering UK out of the EU. When she came, her slogan was “Brexit means Brexit”, and this thrilled some of the hardline Brexiteers within and outside the conservative party. Two years down the line, and within weeks from the deadline for the exit from the EU, Brexit really is looking like Brexit; a no-deal Brexit. Theresa May’s handling of the process has been tenuous and deeply embarrassing for the UK.

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For the first time in so long, the cracks within the British government are becoming visible to the world. The Brexit negotiation has witnessed the resignation of key members of the Prime Minister’s Brexit cabinet, including two Brexit Secretaries, whose roles were right at the forefront of the negotiations. As the negotiations dragged on, it was soon obvious that Europe would keep to its word and make the process excruciating for the Britons. It seems that the EU’s Brexit position is now having adverse effects on the British parliament, with Theresa May having already survived two no-confidence votes since December.

The back and forth in the House of Commons betrays deep divisions within parliament that traverses party affiliation. The deal that May’s team brought for ratification before the British parliament suffered the biggest defeat in over a century, by 230 votes, despite the fact that the vote was initially postponed because of the high likelihood of a defeat. The relationship between May and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition labour party, has sometimes degenerated to bitter bickering on the floor of the House of Commons. There is a general sense that the government and opposition are being irresponsible with their standoffish relationship, so much that the best interests of  the country may have been pushed to the back bench.

The major grouch with May’s deal is the “backstop agreement” that excludes a physical border in Northern Ireland. The staunch Brexiteers say that it is against the spirit of true Brexit and the deal does not deliver what the people asked for. The labour leadership canvasses for membership of the European custom’s union, which Theresa May is opposed to. The immigration concern is also thought to be unaddressed with the present deal as it is. With little time before the March 29 Brexit deadline, Theresa May thinks she can renegotiate a deal that parliament can accept, and in time to ensure that there is a deal in place before the deadline.

In the end, what the British parliament seems unwilling to face or talk about is that The UK may have only two options left – a no-deal Brexit that leaves businesses and people in the wilderness, or a reversal of course to remain in the EU, which may require another referendum. Theresa May has always been emphatic about not calling any further referendums. With the only deal now rejected by parliament, the unwillingness of the EU to bulge on its positions and the Scottish threat of another referendum, Theresa May, or a successor, may have to swallow some pride and explore the possibilities of remaining in the EU, as a practical step on its own or has a measure to avoid a no-deal Brexit and its potentially crippling uncertainty.

A remarkable number of young people voted against Brexit during the 2016 referendum. The polls showed that a greater percentage of older people supported an exit from the EU. At least two personal encounters with older Britons during the period confirmed this, with one of them explaining how different The UK felt from what he was used to whilst growing up. He felt uncomfortable with the immigrants he saw around and their influence on British culture. He was expressing an honest opinion that had its own merit.

However, the future belongs to the younger generation and they seem to like the  UK of today and the potential of tomorrow. It is that section of British society that should carry the day. Statistically, more young people would now be eligible to vote in a new referendum. With the bolstered numbers and the votes of others who may have had a rethink after the horse show that characterises the Brexit negotiations, one may rightly predict that the result will most likely be different. But why does this scare those in the British government? Or is it just the conservative party trying to save face?

As we observe Brexit many miles away from the confusion in Westminster, there are pointers for our own society. Nigeria may have not attained the status of the British government or what is ordinarily known of the strength of its democracy, but as we are continually haunted by the shadow of a disintegration of our union in Nigeria, perhaps people need to understand some of the unsavoury intricacies of such an event, which is now on full display in The UK. Just as Brexit shows, as each day passes, that UK may fare better if it remains in the EU, it may inspire desire for the continued union of the peoples of Nigeria. Besides, the younger generations of Nigerians do not seem to be inclined towards a breakup. This ought to guide us in navigating away from courses of action that threaten the unity of Nigeria.

David Cameron cannot take back that ill-fated decision he took in 2016. The negative impact of that decision on the lives of people inside and outside the UK will forever weigh on his conscience. There is no one rooting harder for a positive brexit outcome than Cameron. Theresa May’s government has now met a difficult situation with strong-headed politics and a single mindedness that could throw the stability of British society into disarray. By continuing in her position, she looks on one hand like a determined leader eager to deliver the people’s choice, and on the other hand, like an “African strongman” type, incapable of changing his mind or stepping down.

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