Cleaveland: Roil Britannia - the UK's intractable dilemma

Cleaveland: Roil Britannia - the UK's intractable dilemma

June 9th, 2019 by Clif Cleaveland in Opinion Columns

Brexit supporters shout slogans at Parliament Square in Westminster, London, Friday, March 29, 2019. Pro-Brexit demonstrators were gathering in central London on the day that Britain was originally scheduled to leave the European Union. British lawmakers will vote Friday on what Prime Minister Theresa May's government described as the "last chance to vote for Brexit." (AP Photo/ Frank Augstein)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Clif Cleaveland

Clif Cleaveland

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Winston S. Churchill famously stated, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."

Democracy works smoothly when there is broad agreement on issues. When a controversial matter arises that splits an electorate, anger and suspicion may intensify the supporters of opposing positions, and government may grind to a halt. Aggressive campaigns on social media can exaggerate benefits and dangers of any pending legislation.

This is the dilemma facing the United Kingdom over the matter of secession from the European Union.

In a 1946 speech, Mr. Churchill called for the creation of "a kind of United States of Europe." His words inspired a series of multinational treaties. A 1951 treaty created a six-nation European Coal and Steel Community to coordinate and regulate heavy industry in the member countries. Six years later, this morphed into the European Economic Community with broader powers to abolish tariffs and regulate atomic energy. Member nations accepted the UK as a member of EEC in 1973. A 1975 UK referendum showed strong support for membership.

The Treaty of European Union, signed by member nations in 1992, shaped the present-day EU. The treaty removed passport checks at borders, facilitated free flow of goods and services among member states, and laid the groundwork for common policies about foreign affairs, immigration, security and legal issues. A European Parliament, with membership based on population, established policy and ruled on disagreements among member states.

In 1998, the EU established the European Central Bank. The Euro, deigned to serve as a common currency, came into circulation in 2002. The UK chose to maintain the pound sterling as its currency.

Currently, 28 nations with a combined population of more than 500 million people belong to the EU. Nineteen member states use the Euro as a common currency. In 2018, the EU, representing 7% of the world's population, generated almost 29% of the world's Gross Domestic Product.

Critics of UK membership in the EU contend that the UK contributes far more to the EU than it derives in benefits. They further argue that EU policies created a flood of immigrants into the UK.

Following election of a new UK Parliament in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron called for a referendum in May 2016 on the UK's continuing membership in the EU, a position that he strongly backed. About 71% of eligible voters turned out. Almost 52% voted to leave the EU. Voters in metropolitan London, Scotland and Northern Ireland strongly supported continued EU membership.

March 31, 2019, was set as the date for the UK's formal withdrawal — termed "Brexit" — from the EU. Negotiations earlier this year led to an extension of this deadline to Oct 31.

Following the referendum, Cameron resigned as prime minister; Teresa May succeeded him. In the ensuing three years, Parliament has been unable to agree on terms for Brexit. The majority Conservative Party is fragmented. One faction favors a "hard" Brexit—severing of all ties with the EU. An equally determined faction seeks a negotiated Brexit that would allow UK membership in a free-trade union. The Labor party is split. A new Brexit party gains strength. Brexit opponents demand a second referendum on EU membership, contending that the consequences of withdrawal were not spelled out at the time of the 2016 vote.

The Conservative Party does not have to face a national election until 2022. After failing to gain approval for a negotiated Brexit, May announced her resignation effective June 7. The Conservative Party will elect her successor. A dozen or so candidates seek the job, some vowing support for a hard Brexit, others stating that this would lead to an economic and political disaster. UK democracy is caught in a perfect gridlock with no clear way forward and threats that the UK itself may not survive.

Compromise is crucial to the functioning of a democracy. Extreme positions on policy and the demonizing of one's opponents lead to fragmentation of political parties, anger and distrust of the institutions of government. The UK's dire predicament is a warning for the U.S. as we face our own complex, deeply divisive controversies.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315