Leaving Europe would cause more enduring damage to Britain than the president could do to America.
Everything that could go wrong with Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union seems to have done so. With only 59 days to go until the U.K. automatically crashes out of the bloc, British lawmakers still haven’t approved a deal with EU leaders that would avoid a cataclysmic rupture. The odds are not good. The House of Commons decisively rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal earlier this month, handing her the biggest parliamentary defeat for a British government in the country’s history. Members will vote on Tuesday on amendments to May’s “Plan B” legislation that could avoid, or guarantee, a no-deal Brexit.
As an American, following this debacle is like watching one sinking ship from the deck of another sinking ship. The Brexit vote was a foreshock of sorts, a surge of ethno-nationalist populism that preceded President Donald Trump’s election by six months. “Basically, they took back their country,” Trump told reporters when he landed in Scotland the day after the referendum. He rode a similar confluence of factors—unabashed xenophobia, the Great Recession’s unhealed wounds, a discredited generation of centrist elites—to the most powerful office in the world.
Neither Trump nor Brexit have lived up to their promises, each inflicting tremendous damage to their country’s political and social life. Trump has ripped thousands of children away from their parents, given tacit support to white supremacists, encouraged violence against political opponents, and sowed distrust of the free press, federal government, and even American democracy itself. But his harms, while acute, are ultimately treatable—many are even reversible.
Brexit is different. There are immediate damages, to be sure, in terms of economic losses. But the consequences of Britain’s departure from Europe won’t be fully known for years, and almost certainly will be more enduring than Trump’s. The nation will be diminished on the world stage and within, as younger generations are deprived of opportunities enjoyed by their parents and grandparents for decades.
It’s hard to argue that, at this moment in time, Brexit is worse for Britain than Trump is for America. But it’s also easy to see how, half a decade from now, that will be true. And if that’s so, it will be largely attributable to fundamental differences between the countries themselves.
The Founding Fathers built the American system of government with someone like Trump in mind: a corrupt demagogue who shows no interest in protecting minority rights or upholding the rule of law. Federal judges throughout the lower courts have blocked his administration’s legally dubious policies from going into effect. American voters last fall handed Democrats control of House of Representatives to act as a check on the president. Impeachment threats appear to have blocked him from shutting down the Russia investigation. The damage would have been further minimized if Congress hadn’t ceded so much of its power to the executive branch in recent decades.
The U.S. Constitution determines what Congress can make laws about and what matters are left to the states. Parliament, on the other hand, has “sovereign and uncontrollable authority in making, confirming, enlarging, restraining, abrogating, repealing, reviving, and expounding of laws, concerning matters of all possible denominations, ecclesiastical, or temporal, civil, military, maritime, or criminal,” Lord Blackstone, Britain’s most celebrated jurist, wrote in the eighteenth century. “It can, in short, do everything that is not naturally impossible.”
Everything, that is, except forge a transitional agreement to leave the European Union. May’s Conservative Party is torn between Brexit hardliners who demand a departure from the bloc at all costs and a range of other Tory factions that want something less destructive. Last year, she called a snap general election in hopes of securing a mandate to negotiate an agreement on Britain’s behalf. Instead, her party lost seats and became dependent on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power. The DUP’s influence has made it harder to reach a consensus on the Irish border, which is supposed to stay open under the Good Friday Agreement but likely will close if Britain crashes out of the EU.
Most of Britain’s other political parties favor a second referendum to halt Brexit, but they lack the votes in Parliament to make it happen. The Labour Party, the House of Commons’ official opposition, is officially silent on the question and many other Brexit-related matters. Most of Britain’s political establishment faults leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime Euroskeptic in a generally pro-Europe party, for not offering a viable alternative to May’s plans. His supporters counter that he’s trying to outmaneuver the Tories in preparation for the next general election. Whatever the reason for his ambiguity, the result is chaos and a likely no-deal Brexit in two months.
All of this has had a withering effect on Britons’ faith in their political and social institutions. One recent survey found that 61 percent of respondents felt their views weren’t being represented in the nation’s political debates. Neither May nor Corbyn had more than 40 percent approval in the survey. Almost 70 percent thought their politics had become angrier in recent years, while 40 percent said they feared political violence would grow. Those who voted for Britain to remain in the European Union are, somewhat understandably, less optimistic about the country’s future. But even those who support Brexit are feeling disillusioned: The survey found that 43 percent of them think the country is on the wrong track.
Americans are feeling dispirited about their futures as well. In the wake of the partial government shutdown, an NBC News poll found that 63 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Beneath those numbers, however, there are signs of reinvigoration in the nation’s political spirit. Millions of Americans have taken part in protests and demonstrations across the country since Trump took office. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions have skyrocketed amid Trump’s constant attacks on the press. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has led the legal resistance to Trump’s policies, has seen its membership quadruple since the 2016 election.
A similar revival of Britain’s political culture has yet to take place. One factor may be the lack of opportunities to change the U.K.’s fate. Trump is ultimately constrained by the transitory nature of his office. Americans will have an opportunity to remove him from office next year. Even in the unlikely event that they do not, he would still depart the White House by 2025. Brexit has no end date. It stretches out before that country like an endless sea. So while Trump only has a few years to upend American lives and livelihoods, Brexit may still be shaping British destinies for generations to come.