Opinion

Britains culture of confrontation

PARIS — Having exhausted all the unreasonable alternatives, Britain may just be on the brink of an 11th-hour outbreak of common sense.

Dont count on it.

Four days after the bells of “Independence Day” were meant to have chimed, and a week before European Union leaders meet to decide whether to call time on British procrastination and pull the plug on the U.K.s membership, the prime minister of her majestys government finally deigned to consult the leader of her majestys loyal opposition about how to avert a national disaster.

A Brexit compromise — the nightmare of purists on both sides of the interminable national nervous breakdown over Europe — is belatedly being explored. Instead of driving a petrified U.K. headlong over the cliff of a no-deal Brexit next week, Prime Minister Theresa May has chosen to probe for common ground with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on a closer long-term relationship with the EU than most of her Conservative Party wants.

But just how sincere either side is in this last-ditch show of statesmanship remains to be seen. Although the contours of a compromise remain fuzzy, the mere possibility of a Brexit halfway house is provoking a partisan outcry on both sides.

The U.K.s political culture is one of tribal confrontation, not consensus or consultation.

The fact that May resorted to seeking an understanding only as an absolute last resort after nearly three years of ignoring the opposition shows how, contrary to its widespread international image as the home of moderation rather than ideology, Britain is in fact historically far more often a seething pit of adversarial combat with a winner-takes-all electoral system.

Despite a global reputation for skilled diplomacy, pragmatism and common sense, the truth is that the Brits have spent centuries fighting each other and tend to regard compromise, rather than patriotism, as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

This central feature of British politics has proved historically incompatible with membership of the EU — a den of perpetual compromise and incrementalism.

The U.K.s political culture is one of tribal confrontation, not consensus or consultation: York versus Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses; Protestants versus Catholics in more than a century of religious strife; Roundheads versus Cavaliers during the English Civil War; Whigs versus Tories throughout the 18th century; Free Traders versus supporters of the Corn Laws in the 19th century; then a century of class struggle between Labour and the Conservatives; and decades of vicious feuding between Euroskeptics and pro-Europeans.

The hemicycle in Strasbourg is radically different to the antagonistic layout of the House of Commons | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

You just have to compare the shape of the House of Commons, in which government and opposition parties jeer at each other from opposite benches in a long narrow chamber, to the hemicycles of Germanys Bundestag or the European Parliament, where coalition rule and the quest for cross-party consensus are the norm on matters of supreme national or European interest.

Post-war German politics was refounded, at least rhetorically, on die Gemeinsamkeit der Demokraten (the commonality of democrats), whereas reaching out across the aisle (or rather across the dispatch box) is anathema in Britain except in wartime. The role of the government is to govern. The role of the opposition is to oppose.

That is surely one reason — along with the phantom pain of lost empire — why the U.K. never truly adjusted to membership of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of todays EU. Governments were frustrated at having to negotiate endless compromises in airless rooms late at night, rather than simply taking decisions and ordering civil servants to implement them.

Chris Patten, a former Conservative Party chairman who was one of Britains most effective European commissioners, described the EU as “a wonderful experiment in arguing about fish quotas instead of shooting at each other.” A middle-of-the-road chap, Patten fitted perfectly into the EU executive, a permanent coalition of center-left and center-right politicians nominated by their national governments but sworn to serve a common “European interest.”

He was one of a handful of exceptions, and an outcast in his own party.

While British diplomats mastered the game, the politicians never got used to the bipartisan nature of European governance, in which legislation requires not just constructing shifting multinational alliances but also engaging in give-and-take with the European Parliament. The EU legislature had few sharp political dividing lines (it has more nowadays) but was an endless backroom deal factory driven by the desire to aggrandize its own power.

Jeremy Corbyn and Thersa May are trying to find consensus at a point of maximum strife | Pool photo by Stefan Wermuth/Getty Images

Many Britons, especially the more nationalistic Conservatives, hated and still hate the idea of having to agree with foreigners on “our laws, our money, or our borders.” Indeed, the main reason for parliaments repeated rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by May and the EU was that the U.K. might be forced to compromise, even temporarily, on its regulatory sovereignty in Northern Ireland to preserve an open border with Ireland and the EU.

Commission President Jean-ClaudeRead More – Source