Britain prepares for Brexit: Theresa May played Chamberlain before EU polls, but who will be Winston Churchill?

Editor's note: This is the final part of a four-part series of reports on Brexit from the UK. It will relay voices of everyday British folk on the coming departure from Europe


London: Prime Minister Theresa May may well go down in history as the Neville Chamberlain of Brexit. Chamberlain, who preceded Winston Churchill as British prime minister, was the dissembling and doggedly optimistic leader of pre-World War II Britain who ignored Adolf Hitler until it was too late to stop the war. Ironically, Chamberlain, by bending over backwards to appease Hitler, was a pacifist sincerely trying to avert the war. May believes that it is her personal duty to "deliver" Brexit under her terms, no matter how long it takes or how much political damage or humiliation she or the UK suffers.

On Thursday, voters across the United Kingdom began voting from 7 am BST to elect 73 members of the European Parliament — known as MEPs — from nine constituencies in England and one each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Polls closed at 10 pm BST. Each region has a different number of representatives based on its population - ranging from three MEPs in the North East and Northern Ireland to 10 MEPs in the South East. Results will not be announced until 10 pm Sunday, until after polling across all EU nations is completed over the next three days.

This EU vote in the UK is being pegged as the second referendum on Brexit by the media. Observers expect the vote to give a clear indication of what the people want today, three years after the 2016 referendum to exit the EU. This is because the two major parties — Conservatives and Labour — have ceded ground to new parties who have a single agenda: For or against Brexit. These small parties have managed to get the attention of the voters simply by their unequivocal commitment to either side of the Brexit divide.

In contrast, even if the mountains of words spoken everyday at Westminster were able to pierce the apathy across the country, the general public would be no wiser about where the two major parties stand on the issue. Most ordinary people — bored silly by the painstakingly argued, finely-nuanced distinctions each member makes — only want UK to Leave or Stay in the UK, with or without a deal.

 Britain prepares for Brexit: Theresa May played Chamberlain before EU polls, but who will be Winston Churchill?

File image of British prime minister Theresa May. AP

In Maidenhead, a city municipal worker voiced the widespread opinion that the time to leave was three years ago not under any "EU deal" but simply WTO rules. "I just don’t want to talk about it" is a sentence often heard in England and Wales, where impatience with the slow moving government is most keenly felt. In Ireland and Scotland, more people feel that the problem does not concern them. They see Brexit as England's problem. "We have nothing to do with it. If England wants to get out, it should".

On Tuesday, two days before the EU vote got underway, May had a classic Chamberlainian moment. She made a long speech in Parliament to outline a "10-point plan" — her old Brexit proposal reimagined — and announced it would be put to another vote. The proposal that had failed to pass thrice in the past in slightly different forms, was loudly opposed by several voices, including some in her own party. There is now an open rebellion, which, at the time of writing, forced the government to delay publication of the new proposal.

In a manoeuvre that seemed suspiciously like an attempt to complicate matters not make them easier — perhaps to win more time for herself, she said all MPs would have to signal their consent for a second referendum during the vote. The vote on her proposal is scheduled for next month, and will be followed by her "setting a date" for her resignation. Instead of an act of leadership, the speech was the equivalent of the long "outgoing" prime minister rearranging files on her desk.

Around her, dismal economic news continued to break. As she spoke, Mrs May shared headlines with a small but speciality high-end steelmaker British Steel, which announced that it was in bankruptcy, threatening 5,000 jobs in the company and 20,000 more in allied suppliers. The news that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's chain closed all but three of its restaurants followed in quick succession. That cost 1,000 jobs.

More troubling than apathy, a large number of people across the Kingdom have come to hold no opinion whatsoever. The general bafflement over the issues involved is more prevalent among rural communities. In cities, discussions are simply not entertained. In Ireland, political discussions are scrupulously avoided but the posters openly proclaim all Irish people on either side of the border with the Republic of Ireland as "one nation". Even "unionists" or those who are opposed to Northern Ireland becoming part of the Irish Republic fear that Brexit will splinter the UK.

The trend of the voter's disaffection with the Big Two parties first surfaced at the civic elections on 2 May. Votes splintered among the newly formed pro-Leave Brexit Party of Nigel Farage and the Liberal Democrats who are strongly committed to Remaining in the EU.

In the weeks since, this trend has only strengthened. Support for both parties has surged. Brexit Party was a clear leader in the opinion polls right until polls opened. A day before voting began, speaking to a large crowd of supporters who had paid GBP 2.50 to cheer him in London, Farage sounded euphoric. "The establishment: they’re not frightened – they’re absolutely terrified!" Farage declared to standing ovations.

"We've managed to give millions and millions of people in this country – who were frustrated, upset, angry, on the point of saying they may never vote again, so sick were they of the shenanigans – we have given them hope,” he said. The final Liberal Democrat rally in the capital also drew crowds, though smaller. The headline of the “Lib Dem” manifesto for EU elections reads: Bollocks to Brexit. It could not have been plainer.

But if May is Chamberlain, the all-too-familiar cast of Brexit characters offer no Churchillian option, at least none that is readily identifiable. Then again, though a monumental figure in UK and world history, Churchill's early, lone voice against Hitler was for a long time dismissed in Parliament as being alarmist.

The search for a Churchill-like figure, a possible saviour, yields some interesting answers: Nigel Farage, surely the single-most important agent of change in British politics over the past decade, has displayed dogged, Churchillian commitment to his vision of a Britain outside EU.

Peter Wiltshire, a Brexit Party candidate, explained that once out of the EU, Britain could follow the Singapore model, eschewing trade blocs and making bilateral free trade deals with British Commonweath nations. Farage may be no Churchill but he is at the very least a working class version of Donald Trump.

Boris Johnson, a former journalist like Churchill and born into privilege like him, clearly lacks gravity or a sense of mission. He also seems to wilt in the big moment, which true leaders most cherish. After the unexpected Brexit vote which he campaigned for, Boris withdrew, explaining his decision with a bit of sophistry. Apart from that, Boris's carefully cultivated personality — the fashionably dishevelled hair, the too-clever retort speaks of a man too self-involved and a clever ambitious politician at best. At worst, a man who needs an applauding audience. Perhaps the only vision Boris can see is looking back at him from the bathroom mirror.

Suave former prime minister David Cameron, who called for the referendum in 2016, is today in the unlucky position of a doctor who prescribed an X-ray — only to be blamed for the disease it revealed. Cameron, who is widely reviled for setting the "Brexit boulder careening" in the colourful words of a newspaper, has not ruled out a further role in politics. Though his Brexit baggage may prove too heavy, he at least gave up power on principle: As a pro-EU Tory, he could not, he felt, implement the Brexit verdict in good conscience.

Churchill presided over the UK during a period of crisis not unlike the current one. He had to keep a crumbling Empire together for money and manpower to defend Britain from the Nazi war machine at home.

Today, the UK is facing a peaceful threat to its sovereignty unimaginable only a decade ago. That Northern Ireland becomes part of the Republic of Ireland is a prospect that is being seriously entertained. As is an Independent Scotland.

All this while the future of the EU is itself under some question. A recent study found that a majority of populations polled among all EU countries believe that the EU, while a good idea, would fall apart in 20 years. An alarming 40 percent feared a war among member countries within 10 years.

If Brexit has to finally happen, every day that passes without it is a day wasted. The British have a keen sense of history, having written much of it around the world. The nation that gave the world codified law, bureaucracy, industry, education — and the English language — is now engaged in a very public struggle to understand just what two simple words, Leave and Remain, mean. And a third: Leadership.

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 12:16:58 IST