Monday, July 06, 2020

In Brexit, a cautionary tale for politicians

Feb 01. 2019
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Was there ever a compromise to be found in Britain’s seemingly inevitable split with the European Union?

In politics, people make both good and bad compromises. Good deals follow the reshaping of beliefs or ideologies and derive from understanding all sides of the story. Bad deals are chiefly for expediency, noble intentions abandoned for the sake of political survival, even if only temporarily. And then there are in-between compromises, whose motive or purpose is more difficult to identify.

Britain’s historic debate over plans to quit the European Union in a “Brexit”, which has left Prime Minister Theresa May so profoundly benighted, probably stemmed from one such grey area in an attempt to find compromise. May was initially opposed to leaving the grand European experiment in cohesion, but as leader of a country where a majority of voters wanted to disengage, she had no choice but to pursue the Brexit. 

Politics has greatly complicated matters, with her “Leave” proposals widely considered worse than if the “Stay” contingent had won the referendum. May is facing ferocious opposition left, right and centre, and all sides are set to see her every action as being politically motivated.

It’s common enough in politics for leaders to have to take action they personally do not support, but May’s case is an extreme one. The mistrust surrounding her might be largely well deserved, but it is also unfortunate. Citizens of other countries will learn from her plight that it is unwise to elect a leader whose platform is out of synch with the majority view. Even after reshaping her Brexit stance to match the common will and thus forging a seemingly sound compromise, doubts about her judgement will never fully dissipate.

Brexit was already going to be highly contentious even without a premier balking at the majority’s wishes. May is now permanently stained with suspicion. Britain is in a terrible bind, May is mired in crisis and the EU is awaiting the outcome with a mix of disdain, sadness and apathy.

May has struggled to try and reconcile factions within her own Conservative Party over the issue, her insistence on Brexit best options sounding tinny following her previous commitment to keeping Britain within the EU. The lesson here – applicable in nations around the world – is that leaders, in taking necessary action on issues of crucial importance, must not only find compromises but also make the compromises palatable to all. Thailand has struggled with such nagging issues as allowing foreign military bases on its soil and multinational oil exploration in its waters. Public perception of the solutions broached must leave no room for misinterpretation or serious doubt.

The recent shutdown of portions of the US government was another example of political differences complicating a leader’s pre-election platform. President Donald Trump has already compromised to a certain extent but threatens more disruption unless he gets his border wall soon, and it is democracy that’s being acid-tested. Trump seeks to wield his democratic mandate, but his opponents question the manner in which he wields it.

Brexit, at root an economic issue, has been rendered unnecessarily complicated by political manoeuvring. Whatever the outcome, it seems unlikely to genuinely serve the interests of the British people. Theresa May is at least partly to blame for this, regardless of her intentions at any stage of the process. There are issues of great social and economic magnitude that politics will only worsen, and Brexit appears to be one of them. 

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