Brexit: What Would Sisyphus Do?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Brexiteers anxious to spread the good news of independence cannot deny that theirs has been an uphill battle. Sisyphus, the mythical Greek cursed to push a gigantic boulder up a mountain, has been their avatar; no sooner is the summit reached but that the burden rolls back to the bottom, forcing Sisyphus to resume his labors. Such is the cause of British independence.
Nothing so exemplifies Britons’ indifference to freedom than the drift of the election to be decided Thursday. It is fatuous to relate the sins of the Labor and Liberal Democratic parties and a host of minor political entities. All are allergic to the idea of Britain striking out as an independent sovereign nation once more, working cooperatively with the European Union but no longer subservient to an EU mandarinate held accountable to no democratic body and overseen, indulgently, by the European Court of Justice.
Instead, one looks with sorrow upon two parties who took up the Brexit cause as their own but are no less wanting. “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” Conservatives, presumably, champion limited government, free enterprise, and individual responsibility. While it would be impolitic to question the patriotism of any political party, few would doubt that Tories are synonymous with “Queen and Country” and the good old Union Jack.
Conservatives, again, gave, albeit half-heartedly, Britons the 2016 referendum that voted to exit the EU. From this point forward, Tories have far less to cheer. Governments led by Theresa May and Boris Johnson have had lacklustre deals frustrated by obstreperous parliamentarians. Nor has the general election energized an upsurge for independence.
A double-digit polling lead has been halved and the prospects of another minority government (or losing power altogether) are rumored. Worse, the party manifesto is a litany of assaults upon economic sanity, in the form of more spending, borrowing, and interventions in the marketplace, through minimum wage hikes or bowing to climate change hysteria.
British liberty finds no solace with Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, either. Mr. Farage and his cohort, in this new party and under his former leadership of the UK Independence Party, must be given their due for keeping the flame of freedom alive. Yet the election manifesto lists an agenda that reverses momentum. Innovations like proportional representation — a voting system that engineers gridlock such as has paralyzed the preceding Parliament — and scrapping the historic House of Lords for an elected chamber, belie any belief in greater individual liberty.
Reforming the peers is a case in point. The current body, though imperfect, provides “sober second thought” — as Canadians justify their own Red Chamber — and accedes to the democratic Commons. To elect “peers” would place careerist politicians in conflict with MPs, “paper barriers” to the contrary. Witness the effect of Britain’s Supreme Court on the Queen’s prerogative to prorogue Parliament.
Reflecting on political institutions of his own time, Edmund Burke observed that “people will bear an old establishment when its excess is corrected, who will revolt at a new one.” Certainly this applies to the House of Lords. But does it also account for Britons’ complacency toward incipient independence?
Many adherents of freedom have abandoned the Conservative party as nothing more than an organization of the status quo, merely preserving — “conserving” — their opponents’ policy gains toward greater government intervention. Margaret Thatcher often spoke of the “ratchet” effect. “Once a socialist reform had been introduced, it remained,” she realized.
Tory measures, if Conservatives had the conviction to enact them, were soon overturned by progressive ministries (regardless of party). The end result, Mrs. Thatcher lamented, was that Britain “moved convulsively but inexorably to the Left.”
How stands Brexit against such odds? Nil desperandum, as I opined optimistically in a recent wire. Prime Minister Johnson has not taken a “clean break” Brexit off the table, and Conservatives aim to finalize trade negotiations at the end of 2020, with full freedom from EU regulatory burdens.
Any UK government is duty-bound to represent the interests of all Britons, Leave or Remain, regardless of party. That Britain is still on track to exit the EU may be the most that Brexiteers can expect, especially given the record of the last year and the hurdles thrown up in the path of independence.
While reformers seek “a complete system of liberty,” none “would think it right to aim at such improvement, by disturbing his country, and risking everything that is dear to him,” Burke advised. Prudence dictates that “in every arduous enterprise, we consider what we are to lose, as well as what we are to gain . . . the more and better stake of liberty every people possess, the less they will hazard in a vain attempt to make it more.”