Brexit and why I still admire British political culture

Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, a Tory politician appointed by the current prime minister, advised that Theresa May’s last ditch efforts to secure legally binding reassurances for her Brexit deal around the controversial backstop clause fell short of guaranteeing that the United Kingdom could unilaterally withdraw itself from a situation that would see Northern Ireland unified indefinitely with the Republic of Ireland and a UK/EU border drawn down the middle of the Irish Sea. Mr. Cox effectively conducted a reality check on his boss. He explained: “I have been a barrister for 36 years, and a senior politician for seven months. My professional reputation is far more important to me than my reputation as a politician.”

Is there any minister in the current Hungarian government who would dare take such a principled position on an issue of immense political import for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or indeed on any issue whatsoever? Is Hungary’s prime minister the type of man who would welcome or at least tolerate professional honesty and integrity from his ministers? It seems almost perverse to even pose these questions. Yet I must, as even amidst the chaos and dysfunction that is British parliamentary politics today, I have to recognize the courage and principled stand taken by several politicians–sometimes risking the interests of their party, government or career for what they believe (rightly or wrongly) to be the greater national interest. (I count those who recently quit Labour to form an independent group over antisemitism within Labour rank in this camp as well.) One of the most significant failings of the Hungarian political class (arguably a reflection of Hungarian society as a whole) is servility, even when conscience, experience and judgement would dictate otherwise.

Admittedly, it may seem odd to speak with admiration for British politics at this particular juncture. A country that once ruled the seas and was at the core of an empire over which the sun never set is a pale shadow of its former self, and some don’t seem willing to recognize this. Mrs. May has been dealt an absolutely terrible set of cards by many of the most intransigent Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) wing of the Tory party, particularly by people like Boris Johnson and those who campaigned for “leave” by peddling fairy-tales about the process and the outcome. Mrs. May was not herself a supporter of the leave campaign at the time, but as prime minister she has displayed a dogged stubbornness in trying to make Brexit work — somehow.

Mrs. May casts a lonely figure walking home in the rain after church service in her Maidenhead constituency or commuting back-and-forth to continental Europe for talks, in the hope of securing what she knows is impossible; then returning home to sneers and mockery about her shot credibility as prime minister, her impending demise and the barrage of opposing demands that she cannot fulfill from both the left and right. I suspect some in her position, having inherited a thoroughly poisoned chalice, would have resigned and told her detractors, both in her party and across the aisle to stuff it. Instead, Mrs. May has held on, with a stiff upper lip, defeat after defeat.

Theresa May walking in the rain after church.

The stark reality is that the European Union cannot give Britain what Brexiteers and many in Labour as well want; namely a clean departure from the European Customs Union (or in the case of Labour, a Customs Union but special freedoms for Britain that are irreconcilable with said union) and a guarantee of no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At the moment, the only way to be completely free of the EU and not have a hard border at the same time is to have technology in place along the frontier that everyone recognizes does not exist. So the situation is plainly impossible and the EU cannot be faulted for pushing back by saying that this is ultimately Britain’s mess to fix.

There’s no question that parliament is dysfunctional and Britain has reached an impasse, even as 29 March, the day that Britain must as things currently stand leave the EU, with or without a deal. There’s a chance that the day of reckoning might be pushed off until around 20 May 2019 or possibly as late as the end of June 2019–but any further extension would require Britain’s participation in upcoming EP elections. All this would do is kick the proverbial can down the road–and only a bit.

In spite of all this, and a mess for which much of the British political class bears responsibility, there is something enviable in the freedom of conscience and freedom from tight party discipline, and especially the ability of people like Mr. Cox and others to put principle, professionalism and sound judgment above blind partisan loyalty. Hungarian politics needs more of this mindset and much less embarrassing servility.

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