Last month, Britain voted to leave the European Union, an unexpected but clear verdict, with 52 percent of the electorate who chose to express their opinion opting to chart that course.
Yet on Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters poured through the streets of London, demanding just the opposite, a clear illustration of the fact that the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum, has yet to be implemented.
And, in spite of all the attention being given to the repercussions of Brexit, there is a chance that the divorce between Britain and the European Union therein enshrined may never come to pass.
“The atmosphere was really nice, very pro-EU, lots of love being expressed for the EU,” Hans Kundnani, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund who was at the demonstrations in London, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “But the most important message to come out of this, in my opinion, should be the importance of having a general election.”
What? The British people have just voted in a referendum, turning out in numbers not seen at the ballot box for decades, and the next step should be a general election?
As Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Europe, describes it to the Monitor in a phone interview, the political parties are “not in control of the situation.” In fact, she says that nobody had a “plan B” to begin with, that neither of the major parties “intellectually looked at the possibility of a Brexit.”
The political situation is as follows. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has resigned, and his Conservative Party is in the throes of a leadership contest. He has stated clearly that it is for his successor to begin the formal process of leaving the European Union, by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The Labour Party finds itself in no better shape, with multiple resignations plaguing its senior ranks, protesting what many regard as leader Jeremy Corbyn's lackluster efforts to support the "Remain" campaign, and seeking to oust him from his position as head of the party.
There have been calls for a second referendum, but the clamor for that particular pathway appears to be calming, with many analysts echoing the words of Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, who told the Monitor that such a move would be politically “unimaginable.”
In this particular case, however, the results of the referendum are not legally binding on the British government. Parliament itself could choose a different course. But Ms. Dempsey, in common with many observers, simply cannot believe that would happen. The voters have spoken.
Then there is Scotland. And Northern Ireland. Both regions of the United Kingdom saw a majority of their voters electing to remain in the European Union. Scotland already held a referendum on independence just two years ago, in 2014, and there is a genuine possibility of a repeat, should Brexit proceed. Northern Ireland has its own concerns, wondering whether Brexit would require a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, the southern portion of the same island and a member of the European Union.
It could very well be, in the words of Richard Whitman, a senior fellow at the London-based international think tank Chatham House, that Article 50 is “turning out to be the UK's best friend at the moment,” giving everyone some breathing space.
“Article 50 is a ready made excuse not to do anything precipitous,” explains Dr. Whitman in a phone interview. “Right now, the British government is stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
The nature of that rock on one side, and the hard place on the other, has everything to do with the deal that Britain needs to strike with the European Union, if and when it officially declares that it is leaving. That leaves the possibility of a general election, a scenario that Whitman regards as unlikely at present due to the political chaos, but certainly not “clutching at straws.”
The referendum asked a simple question of the British people: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” It did not, however, make any mention of what kind of a deal might be struck between the two entities, should the decision be made to part company.
Some analysts, and some British politicians, therefore feel that any ensuing deal describing such a future relationship needs to have popular endorsement. One way of achieving that would be to have a general election, with parties standing on clear platforms of the relationship they would seek to attain with the EU.
The Liberal Democrats, for example, often regarded as Britain’s third main party, have already pledged to stand in any general election as the party that will break away from Brexit and restore the status quo, with Britain firmly back in the EU.
As for Labour and the Conservatives, they have more pressing battles before they can think on such things, although as Mr. Kundnani says, some of the Conservative front-runners are unlikely to want a general election, “but events may force them [to have one].”
In paraphrasing the thrust of what many analysts are saying, it seems fair to conclude that if one thing is certain in this phase of the Brexit saga, it is that nothing is certain.
“Parliament is just so discombobulated at the moment,” says Dempsey. “Heaven knows what’s going to happen.”