Brexit: A disunited kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II may be the only person who can fix the Brexit mess. She has the power to wave her scepter and declare a solution. It’s a power that the royals have not exercised in years, but at 92 years old and with her nation riven, the Sovereign should step in and decide on the United Kingdom’s sovereignty.
Does she want to continue to cede some of her nation’s power to a mostly faceless European Union based in Brussels? Or should she pull up the island nation’s drawbridge, shut down its borders and add friction to the relatively free trade and capital flows that keep London’s coffers overflowing? What to do?
Here’s some advice from a mere commoner living in a former colony: If the current Brexit process and eventual vote do not provide a clear decision, shine up that crown, warm up your voice and take a stand. My presumptuousness ends there — I’m not going to advise you what Brexit direction you should take. That’s your burden. And your prerogative.
In fact, it is known as the “Royal Prerogative” — one that the royals have not exercised in any assertive way for a long time. Centuries, in fact.
Look across the pond if you want to see how it’s done because there is long-standing precedent for American legal decrees. When Congress was either obstructing policy or failing to act on what he thought was sensible policy, President Obama was keen to invoke the “executive order” privilege. He did it 276 times for things such as DACA. It was fast, convenient and did not require any messy negotiation or compromise with an opposition Congress.
President Trump, too, likes the process of end-running the legislative branch. He whips out his black Sharpie and filigrees a fine signature onto a myriad of executive orders — the latest one declaring a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Congress was up in arms about his flagrant use of this blunt policy instrument meant to sideline their deliberative process and constitutional power. The national emergency decree started a game of power ping-pong in which Congress mustered enough Democratic and Republican votes to overturn the order. Trump then vetoed the Congressional resolution. Earlier this week, Congress could not put together enough votes from both parties to overturn the veto. The result? Trump invokes kingly powers of fiat. And he’s not even king. Yet.
Trump has long lamented the democratic limits of executive power and privilege, openly expressing admiration for autocrats and monarchs who can command by dictate. You, however, dear Queen, are a royal. It’s your job description.
It’s not that your subjects are indecisive about Brexit. It’s that they’re decidedly split down the middle about what it is they want and entirely uncertain about what it all means. As a result, Britain is currently stuck in a political no-win situation, unable to decide how to “Brexit” and leave the European Union. Thity-three long months ago, in a national referendum, around half the voters wanted to stay in Europe, and a little more than half wanted to get out of the EU. British politicians and Theresa May’s government are unable to agree on what to do and how to implement what inevitably will be a painful and costly divorce.
Your Royal Highness, you have dealt with divorce within your own family. You know how messy it can be. Surely you have an opinion, even though you express it ever so obliquely and in coded language. Just recently you made it clear — without stating anything specific — that this is causing your subjects to be the objects of global derision and continental calumny. Whether in Parliament or on the streets, the union is in jeopardy, and your nation’s politicians are exploiting popular divisions for partisan advantage. Parts of your United Kingdom want to split, and the pressure is on to actively concern yourself with union secession as much as royal succession. What would your dad, King George VI, do?
Brexit right now is a real-time, dynamic, unpredictable and hard-to-divine process. Nothing is off the table, and anything is possible — including a second referendum. Whether political machinations force a third meaningful vote on a May-brokered deal or to plot to take down her government, the current parliamentary actions have temporarily taken the government out of the Brexit loop. This has opened up multiple options that were unavailable as early as Monday this week. These fast-moving political power plays are intriguing, astonishing, riveting.
If this were sport and the decisions made did not have real and dire consequences, it would be highly entertaining political theater, occasionally bordering on farce. But the results of rash decisions and unmanageable processes will affect the lives and livelihoods not only of your own subjects, but of those many foreigners who have come to the United Kingdom to seek refuge, freedom and opportunity. The European Union will also pay an incalculable price.
This new environment also opens up the potential for various other actors to enter the fray — will Your Majesty get engaged to use Royal Prerogative? Anything goes right now. As the clock winds down it may be time to act like queen for a day.
Markos Kounalakis covered Queen Elizabeth II’s 1983 visit to San Francisco for Ronald Reagan’s 31st wedding anniversary celebration. Kounalakis continues royal watching as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.