Theresa May and the Rise of the Brexiteers

Union Jack. Flickr/Creative Commons/

The path out of from the European Union is marred with parliamentary battles and legal challenges.

Indeed, as a recent report by Michael Burrage, of the British think tank Civitas: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, argues at great length that European trade in services (where Britain has much to gain) is both limited and declining. The much bigger problem is that the government appears to be pursuing the Henry VIII approach because it fears it lacks the parliamentary majority necessary to make the appropriate changes by legislation—and is going to limit itself to making technical amendments.

And that could be a large foregone opportunity. The left is eager to argue that the problem Britain faces today is that it is hung up on retaining yesterday’s institutions—such as the House of Lords and the monarchy. Right complaint, wrong target: the EU is infinitely more important to the day-to-day regulation of Britain than Her Majesty or their noble lordships.

Leaving the EU offers the incalculably valuable opportunity of a do-over on the entire administrative and regulatory structure of Britain, an opportunity that a successful democracy almost never gets. Taking the amending road threatens to ensure that Brexit means Brexit—but that it might also mean only Brexit. In other words, it means that the do-over may be limited.

In the end, I doubt this approach will work. The May government has persistently sought to avoid the parliamentary road during the Brexit process, and persistently been forced back to it by legal challenges. This, of course, is the ultimate irony of Brexit: the defenders of parliamentary sovereignty have sought to avoid Parliament, while its detractors—who have no problem with handing over powers to Brussels—pretend to pose as its defenders.

Like many Brexiteers, I am doubtful of the reasoning underlying those challenges, which—in a distastefully American way—are about attempts to make policy by legal means. (The efforts in the Lords to amend the Article 50 bill, for example, were not about substance: they were attempts to lay the groundwork for a new legal challenge.) But the end result has been good: the challenges forced the government to fight its way through Parliament, and now no one can claim that the government does not have the right to trigger Article 50.

Taking the road of the Henry VIII powers is politically appealing, but it is likely to meet legal challenges and to run afoul of the problem that a simple rewrite of the EU’s rules will not be so simple. After all, this is the EU we’re talking about here. The government’s reported intention to reclaim control of its territorial waters—which were not lost solely as a result of the Common Fisheries Policy—hints at the reality that, once Britain starts to unpick its relationship with the EU, it will be forced into a root and branch reconsideration, whether this is politically convenient or not. And in the end, that is the only way to get the best outcome out of Brexit.

It’s easy—really easy—to lose track of just how far there is to go on Brexit. There are undoubtedly more parliamentary battles to come, and likely more legal ones, too, as well as a near-infinity of international negotiations and domestic rule-writing. In a way, the complexity of the challenge is an excellent argument for Brexit: the sheer abundance of things to be done emphasizes the way that the EU has squeezed itself into every nook and cranny of British life. We will have plenty of opportunities to be reminded of that over the next few years.

But on Downing Street, as I found last week, they’re reading Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna’s Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. Yes, there is a lot of navigating to be done. And there are risks. But if you don’t take risks, you don’t get rewards. Before the vote, I argued that “Britain, like the West as a whole, has more to gain in the long run from a more dynamic and less status-quo approach, that the EU is basically a status-quo organization, and that the United Kingdom is therefore in a better position to be more dynamic if it exits.”

On Wednesday, the battle for a free Britain reaches a climax—and the battle for that future begins.

Ted R. Bromund is the senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Image: Union Jack. Flickr/Creative Commons/