Brexit devours its children

Tory anti-Europeanism ended Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May. Who’s next?

Published March 30, 2019 7:29AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

This piece originally appeared on The Globalist.

If ever the statement that “revolutions devour their children” applied to British politics, it does so now.

Brexit has devoured its father — David Cameron — and now its daughter Theresa May — as both prime ministers retreat from public life and office destroyed by their own party’s pathological hate of European partnership.

In 1948 Winston Churchill declared:

We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their own native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace. We hope wherever they go they will truly feel ‘Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too.

A decade earlier in the London mass-selling News of the World in 1938, Churchill said Britain should promote:

Every practical step which the nations of Europe may take to reduce the barriers which divide them and to nourish their common interests and their common welfare.

Tories vs. European unity

It is this Churchillian idea of European unity that today’s English Tories truly hate. It would be too kind to Theresa May who has said her favorite reading is recipe books to expect her to have to read Churchill on Europe but since she took charge of Britain after the Brexit vote of June 2016 she has never found her footing.

She did not know how to reach out to Britain and bring the nation together after the divisive Brexit vote on 2016.

We know there was heavy Russian and US dark money involved in helping those who wanted a Brexit vote as a signal to the European Union it was time to break apart into mini-nation states each sheltering under the nationalist bush and refusing to cooperate as a single Europe.

Only 37% of all registered voters supported Brexit. The young, the Scots, the Irish, the big cities wanted to stay linked to Europe.

But in smaller towns and working class areas where steel, shipyard, and other post-industrial workers had seen their jobs go and poverty arrive it was too easy to blame Europe and the European citizens who came to work doing jobs the true-born Brit shunned.

Blaming Europe

Mrs. May could have explained some of this but she chose not to. She blamed Europe for its refusal to let her have a British “cake and eat it” — a Brexit in which Britain could chose the bits of the EU it liked, but repudiate the rules the other 27 EU member states abided by.

And all the time she was harried and bullied by a group of her own MPs who hated Europe with a religious passion. To listen to debates about Europe in England is to be transported to debates about the Vatican and Catholicism versus the Reformation and Protestantism in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The average Islamist Jihadi is better able to accept compromise than the true believing English anti-European Tory.

May and the Conservative Party

Mrs. May had no siblings, has no children, and her parents died when she was in her mid-20s. Her only family, her only point of reference, was the Conservative Party. What the Tory Party rank and file wanted, Mrs. May wanted.

And they did not want Europe. So she was caught in a classic trap. British capitalism, the City, the foreign investors like the Japanese auto firms or Airbus, wanted to maintain an economic relationship with Europe. Open trade even if the UK left the political framework of the EU Treaty.

But the politics of the Tory Party, fed on years of anti-European hate by its popular tenors like Boris Johnson wanted Out, Out, Out.


Mrs. May tried to square the circle with a withdrawal deal that left nearly everything important to be negotiated later going into the 2020s. Thus opened the vista of a Brexiternity in which Britain was neither in nor out.

But she could not find a majority for her unworkable compromise. All the opposition parties refused to support her deal on the logical principle that it would damage investment, jobs and the rights of British citizens to live, work and retire in Europe.

A number of Tory MPs also refused it because it meant a long period, a “Brexiternity” of Britain negotiating a final exit which might never finally happen. And during that long transition period the UK would stay de facto under the rules and the regulations of the EU.

So twice in January and again in March, MPs rejected Mrs. May’s deal by the biggest majorities ever seen in the House of Commons.

But without a deal, the UK would crash out of the EU with no legal basis for trade or commerce, transport, or even flights between Britain and Europe.

She could have offered a compromise to Labour accepting that Britain would at least stay in an economic partnership with Europe via continuing membership of the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

But she is a proud lady and accepting anything suggested by or acceptable to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn was anathema. It was the May Way or No Way.

May’s final card

So she has played her final card offering to go in exchange for Tory MPs supporting her deal. It is barely a footnote in history but since she refused to listen or compromise it is all she has to offer.

The early signs are that she had not moved the fanatical anti-European Tories in sufficient numbers to back her deal. The extreme Ulster protestant homophobe and Dublin-hating DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) have turned a deaf ear to her offer to resign and insist her deal must be rejected as it contains an element of keeping an open border with the Republic of Ireland.

The DUP hate Dublin and Brussels in equal measure and their watchword of “No Compromise” has weight as Mrs. May lost her Tory majority in the opportunistic election she called in 2017.

So the Brexit stalemate continues. The UK can’t leave Europe and can’t stay in Europe.

Tory anti-European populist nationalism cost a happy end to the career of Mrs. Thatcher, ruined Sir Jon Major’s administration 1990-97 and now has consumed David Cameron and Theresa May. Who’s next?

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Denis MacShane

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