A brilliant plan has now been drawn up to enable Britain to withdraw in a thoroughly constructive and friendly way, over time, from the more restrictive aspects of the European Union.
This plan allows Britain to have more control over its immigration policy and ensures a trade future with the continent of Europe that will be smooth and almost frictionless. Furthermore, it offers the opportunity to solve the problem of the border between the northern (U.K.) part of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the south in a manner that does not reignite violence. And perhaps most valuable of all, it allows Britain to open direct and detailed commercial negotiations with the great markets of the future in Asia, Africa and the Americas.
In gardening terms, this plan carefully disentangles Britain and the EU, which have been growing together like two interweaving climbing plants for the past 46 years, with careful pruning and minimum damage to either side.
An outsider would assume that this withdrawal plan would be greeted with acclaim and relief in Britain, and by a determination to move on to the next stage, which is to develop excellent longer-term relations between all European neighbors, and pave the way for new forms of cooperation, not just on economic and trade issues, but also on matters of security, social and cultural arrangements and many other concerns.
But the outsider would be quite wrong. Instead, the plan, while welcomed by some wiser parts of the public, has been greeted in the British Parliament, as well as in parts of the media, by a storm of criticism. Its chief author, British Prime Minister Theresa May, has been subjected to abuse from almost all sides. A shower of ministerial resignations has followed.
The House of Commons at Westminster, once venerated as a cradle of reasoned democratic debate, has descended into a maelstrom of partisan prejudice, personal ambition, blind ignorance — many critics clearly not even having bothered to study the plan document, which is admittedly complex and lengthy — and ill-mannered utterances.
The Labour opposition, desperate for power and anything that will bring that prospect nearer, have declared they will vote against it. The governing Conservative Party factions, empowered by the party’s narrow majority, have announced their total opposition, pouring out vituperation amid wild claims that depict the rest of Europe as the enemy and Britain as threatened with vassalage as a colony of the EU — a completely distorted viewpoint.
May’s foes, coming from all sides, have vowed to “get a better deal” despite the whole EU having made crystal clear that this rather good compromise cannot be changed.
Some call for a second referendum, which would delay the legal departure date (March 31) for months and require a law change. Some say no formal deal is necessary and Britain should just walk away, in effect taking an ax to the whole situation and letting the chaos sort itself out. Some want to reverse gear and apply to rejoin the EU.
To add to the mayhem, the handful of short-sighted politicians from Northern Ireland, whose support helps keep the government in power, have said they will vote against the very prospect that gives them likely the best and most peaceful future, while the Scottish devolved government, also seeing a chance to revive its independence ambitions, has urged its Westminster MPs to vote against as well.
Yet there are no prospects for a parliamentary majority for any of the alternative courses. Faced with the fact that the withdrawal plan offered is not merely the only one possible — short of chaos — but is actually rather good and full of potential, all the factions, like angry children, continue to demand the impossible. Some, mainly the less mature and experienced ones on the Conservative side, have launched a plan to unseat May, although they have no agreed replacement candidate. It would change nothing and wreck the Conservative Party — truly the kamikaze spirit arriving at Westminster. This absurd move has so far failed to take off.
This is parliamentary democracy at its very worst. It leaves the sober majority of British aghast at the antics of their elected representatives.
So what will be the outcome? No one can speak with certainty in the present turmoil, but here’s an optimistic guess.
The madness at Westminster will subside. Further attempts to depose the amazingly resilient May will fail. The Northern Irish MPs will abstain. Some Labour MPs will disregard their very left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and support the plan (a far better course for the future of social democracy than Corbyn’s blind opposition). As a result, the government’s plan will just scrape through and May will survive — possibly only at a second attempt.
A stable future framework with the rest of Europe will then be worked out, Britain will begin to pick up and prosper, and the EU will at last face all the overdue reforms to modernize and make it better suited to the digital age.
Both the national mood and the media will shift in favor of May and her plan. They are doing so already, with some of the hitherto strident pro-Brexit organs taking a far milder and more constructive tone. Many of the commentariat will have to eat their words in large amounts, almost to the point of indigestion.
I hope I am not one of them.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.