Brexit Briefings: Understanding a Country Divided photo

Brexit Briefings: Understanding a Country Divided

December 9, 2019

Coming to Yale to undertake the Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program was always going to be a life-altering experience, but as I prepared for my departure from the UK in the summer of 2019, I was leaving safe in the knowledge that during my absence the UK would somehow have to meet the October 31 Brexit deadline.  This was already the second extension to our leaving the European Union, and our political and policy narratives seemed paralyzed to this single issue. We needed a resolution.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May‚Äôs three failed attempts to get an EU Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament set the scene for a leadership battle that saw a dominant Boris Johnson emerge victorious. Once it became clear that the new Prime Minister‚Äôs tactics were to renegotiate a deal – using more forceful tactics including a ¬£100m¬†‚ÄúGet Ready for a no-deal Brexit‚Ä̬†campaign – it was apparent Brexit would not only occupy more of the national conversation, but it would get a whole lot more complicated in the process. I approached colleagues at the Program in European Union Studies at the Yale MacMillan Center and we agreed a two-part briefing series that would 1) try to make sense of Brexit and crucially, 2) explore what post-Brexit reconciliation might look, informed by global perspectives of nations and societies that have experienced past divisions.

Brexit Briefing I: Updates and Understanding a Country Divided

The first of the briefing events took place on October 28- the very day the European Union¬†announced¬†its agreement to a Brexit ‚Äúflextension‚ÄĚ, despite the Prime Minister proclaiming that he would rather be¬†‚Äėdead in a ditch‚Äô¬†than delay Brexit again the month before. Alongside myself, the event featured panelists Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science and Bonnie Weir, Lecturer in Political Science, and was moderated by Paul Kennedy CBE, the J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and Distinguished Fellow of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy.

I opened proceedings by noting the day’s news: an extension until January 31, 2020, with a departure able to be achieved earlier should a deal be approved by Parliament; as well as a vote in Parliament that day for an early general election that the Prime Minister was trying to pass for the third time. There was jostling between political parties to not back the early election until a no-deal Brexit was taken off the table, as well as talk of setting a concrete election date a few days earlier than the Prime Minister’s proposal, to rule out any chance of him altering it. Such was the level of mistrust between politicians and parties, and which was worryingly being extended to communities up and down the country.

This spoke to the short-termism that political parties were adopting ‚Äď primarily to garner votes ‚Äď whilst simultaneously trying to maneuver the most significant political decision to affect Britain in the post-War period. Of particular concern to me was the very intentional decay and erosion of trust in institutions that was being promulgated by segments of our political establishment ‚Äď a case in point was the¬†proroguing of Parliament¬†and the perfunctory political response to its unlawful ruling by the Supreme Court. There is seemingly little regard for the long-term implications on social integration and the future harmony of our society from these actions. It was noted that this enabling nature of toxicity within and beyond politics had to be addressed, with a resolute commitment to preserving trust in our democratic and state institutions.

Professor Weir addressed the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland, noting that it increased the opportunity and motivation for political violence, which undermined police intervention in areas under paramilitary control, and it reopened key issues about people‚Äôs self-identification since the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Weir noted that the reason this provision worked as well as it did was because the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland became invisible, providing a ‚Äúparity of esteem‚ÄĚ for people who identify with Britain or Ireland or both. Brexit however was now raising the implication that one identity might be more valid than the other. Weir ended by highlighting the positive role the EU had played on this particular issue by allowing the border to be invisible as well as actively supporting post-conflict institutions that worked so well in respecting imaginative identities.

Professor Ackerman, in examining the 2016 EU referendum, reminded the audience that constitutionally the vote was only advisory and non-binding in Parliament. The referendum nevertheless raised important questions about who should vote and what they should vote about, with Bruce highlighting the exclusion of key groups, including British expatriates who have been abroad for more than 15 years. He then situated the constitutional crisis that the UK is experiencing in a ‚Äúsystematic comparison of the rise of enlightenment constitutionalism in the 20th and 21st centuries‚ÄĚ and outlined three different paths to enlightenment constitutionalism: revolutionary, insider, and elitist.¬†

Brexit Briefing II: What Might Post-Brexit Reconciliation Look Like: Global Perspectives

In the second briefing on December 3, 2019, Weir was joined by Meredith Shepard, Yale lecturer in Africa studies, Andrea Aldrich, Yale lecturer in political science, and Professor David R. Cameron, director of the Yale Program in European Union Studies, to explore what lessons the UK can learn from the world in terms of reconciliation. 

I opened proceedings by recapping the results of the 2016 referendum with a detailed breakdown and analysis of the results to highlight points of difference; identifying the increasing intentionality of divisive tactics that have been adopted through the referendum campaign and into the current election cycle; and finally, asserting the importance of reconciliation as a point of priority, to help see the light at the end of the tunnel and put structures in place that enable healing and better management of any continuing disagreement. 

Weir encouraged a cautionary look at Northern Irish reconciliation ‚Äď despite its contextual relevancy as a wealthy country ‚Äď and encouraged asking the question ‚Äúwhat does success look like?‚ÄĚ early on in any process. Bonnie went onto ask who exactly it was that needs to reconcile ‚Äď in a NI context victims, former combatants and politicians ‚Äď and that divisions continued to exist because¬†no systematic attempt has been made to address issues of truth and justice. Shepard ‚Äď in her extrapolation of examples from Rwanda and South Africa ‚Äď reiterated a point made by Weir that the UK is a non-violent context and based on political positions rather than more immutable identities, which necessitates a different model of reconciliation. Shepard noted that whilst articulating divisive ideas is punishable by law in Rwanda, Britain‚Äôs robust press had little incentive to change their approach in a way that prioritizes dialogue.¬†

The question was also asked if Britain wanted reconciliation enough, as without it being a national priority, success would be limited. Aldrich emphasized the positive and negative role information has played in post-conflict former Yugoslavia, and that it would be important to consider how this is regulated in a British context. She highlighted how to move away from forced identity binaries, including the international tribunal individualizing crimes to de-stigmatize those identity bases and the important role civil society organizations played to foster dialogue and bring people together, as well as noting that a large portion of  reconciliation for the Former Yugoslavia countries was the process of joining the European Union; an irony not lost on the audience. 

One of the benefits of being a Yale World Fellow has been the opportunity to look at Brexit from a distance, removing myself from the day-to-day machinations, and really focusing on Britain after the Brexit dust has settled. Organizing these two events has highlighted how much interest there continues to be internationally, and has given me renewed energy and ideas to go back to the United Kingdom and play my part in re-building our good society.   

Nizam Uddin is a 2019 World Fellow at Yale University and Senior Head of Mosaic and Community Integration at The Prince’s Trust in the U.K.