To refresh your recollection, in a referendum in June, 2016, 52% of the British electorate decided that the UK should leave the European Union. The vote wasn’t any more specific than that. It would be up to the (Conservative-dominated) Parliament to determine exactly how to implement this decision. Theresa May, the replacement for the embarrassed David Cameron, clarified the path forward. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said. (Hmmm….that's helpful.) There were many options and interpretations. She chose a pretty radical approach. Her government tried to square the circle and got stuck. Boris Johnson took over, promising to work miracles. He got Brexit “done” with smoke, mirrors, and no small amount of chutzpah.
So, finally, after kicking the can down the road a “final” trade agreement was reached in December 2020 to be implemented by mid-2021. The central formal/legal problem was the status of Northern Ireland. The central practical problem was, well…there were too many to count.
In classic bureaucratic/political style, the can has been kicked down the road again and again. Tensions have risen and fallen; long lines of trucks have waited for the additional formalities required when shipping goods to another country (issues which inclusion in the EU had effectively eliminated) Fish rotted; sales were cancelled; workers (on both sides) were laid off. The Brits wouldn’t recognize French fishing rights, the French threatened to cut off electricity to a few small islands off the coast of France that the British kept a hold of after they abandoned their Norman claims on the continent over 460 years ago. Quel farce!
In the 1962, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said “Britain has lost an empire, but has yet to find a role.” A few years later, they found that role, more-or-less, by joining the EU and taking their place among other former imperial masters now reduced to 2d or 3d tier status. But, more than most (and compared to the French, that’s really saying something), the Brits got stuck in their historo-mythology of grandeur. Yes, the Royal Family gives them the finest piece of long-running performance art around; but more often they have played lap dog to the US and were brushed aside by the Chinese 25 years ago in giving up Hong Kong (not to mention giving up India and most of the rest of the Empire in the mid-20C). The Yanks (the Yanks!, for God’s sake) had to ‘save their bacon’—twice—from the Germans. Their global status is a mere shadow of what it was a hundred years ago—and it hurts.
To the extent that Brexit can be characterized as a coherent political decision (fairly dubious), it has to be seen as an attempt to salvage the illusion of political independence and power in a highly interdependent world. Nigel Farage’s claims that “our ‘sovereignty’ is being trampled on” by Eurobureaucrats may have worked to persuade 52% of the voters in 2016 to express their frustration and vote “Leave,” but replacing them with bureaucrats in London was no clear improvement.
The issue of “sovereignty” has found its clearest expression in the Northern Ireland problem. In 1998, in order to end the “Troubles” (the on-going civil unrest which ran from the 1960s on), the British agreed to the economic integration of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, while retaining a formal political border between them. This wasn’t so difficult to do since both Britain and Ireland were inside the EU. Brexit’s insistence on formal sovereignty (i.e. complete legal independence) now meant that this fudging of borders couldn’t persist. Lines had to be drawn. Much of the current impasse is due to this problem: either 1) allow Northern Ireland to stay in the Irish (&EU) economic zone and but the economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, or 2) reinforce the Irish/Northern Irish border with customs checks etc. and maintain the sovereign integrity of the United Kingdom. The former sticks in the craw of the governing Conservative Party (actually, formally the “Conservative and Unionist” party) and its demands for the illusion of control. The latter disrupts the economy of both Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as the social stability in the North. The reality of sovereignty (in general) is that it always only been a model, never a reality. The Good Friday Agreement ensured that Northern Ireland was always going to be a British-Irish condominium; a clean demarcation was never going to be possible.
There is no good solution to this issue; a fact which has been known by all sides since the Brexit debate began. The Tories couldn’t be seen to be throwing Northern Ireland under the bus, so they lied about the feasibility of Brexit and they have been struggling ever since to find a solution. Their best offer for Northern Ireland is to seriously dent their economy and society to such a degree that many think that Northern Ireland would leave the UK and reunite with the rest of the Irish.
There were many alternative roads that the Brits could have taken, even if they wanted “out” of the EU at some level. Poor leadership by the Conservatives and internecine fighting within the Labour Party kept those solutions from being seriously advanced.
But underneath the drive to “Leave” remained an anger, nominally with the EU, but actually at a modern world which just didn’t care that much about Britain. The lure of sovereignty—however illusory in a world with global supply chains, highly mobile capital and somewhat mobile labor, mobile armies and missiles, guns, and germs, and computer viruses and biological viruses trumped (so to speak) everything. The Brits were used to being a big fish—the biggest fish—in the global pond; now they insisted on staying the biggest fish, and would shrink the pond to a size necessary to ensure the illusion of power and self-importance.
Given the delusional behavior so far, I can’t be optimistic about how this will turn out; even if Boris Johnson fudges and shuffles. Shakespeare and history may be all they can turn to for comfort.