“It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Warren Buffet
It is inevitable that in the life of a country, problems of one kind or another will arise. Be it crime, health care, economic growth or stagnation, demographic changes, or matters of autonomy, all require an adequate definition and the application of wit, wisdom, discipline, leadership, and management to ensure successful outcomes. How quickly the issues are solved or resolved depends on the quality of a country’s leadership and how its resources are deployed. So how did “Great” Britain, a sovereign country with over 800 years of self-government (using the 1215 Magna Carta as a watershed) finds itself in such a muddle over Brexit? And what lessons can we learn?
What is Brexit? Brexit is the term given to the separation of the United Kingdom (UK: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) from the European Union (EU) following the 2016 referendum. The EU, a collection of 28 countries operates as an internal single economic market based on four freedoms which guide the harmonisation of rules. It is the largest economic and political block and eliminates all border controls between members allowing the free flow of goods and people, except for random spot checks for crime and drugs (CSME?).
Serious constitutional issues have arisen. Since Britain does not have a written Constitution, Brexit has caused several issues to be resolved in court. The power of the Executive (Cabinet) has been narrowed as the court ruled that the Withdrawal Notification could only be made after Parliament (Westminster) gave its approval. Therefore, an act was passed setting out the mechanisms putting Parliament in the driver’s seat; any “deal” or “no deal” must be approved by Parliament. Whilst the Cabinet was authorised to negotiate the withdrawal agreement, it has had to report to Parliament on a continuous basis subjecting any agreement to Parliamentary approval.
This development is as momentous as the Tudor revolution, the transition in the Tudor years from the authority of the king to the authority of the king in Parliament, ultimately leading to parliamentary democracy as we know it. Last week the momentum shifted from the Executive to the Parliament. Also noteworthy is the scale and multiplicity of the defeats suffered by Prime Minister May and Cabinet, which ought to have led to instant resignation. Instead, the Prime Minister has soldiered on. It has also led to shifting affiliations which have not based on party lines.
The thorny matter of devolution and autonomy is also at the forefront. The United Kingdom is an amalgamation of Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands dependencies. It was formed by Acts of Union between England and Wales (1536) and England, Wales, and Scotland (1707), uniting the three nations under a single monarchy and legislative council (Parliament in London).
The 1800 Act of the Union merged the UK (England, Wales Scotland) with Ireland. After the Irish War of Independence, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties became The Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remained part of the UK which was renamed the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" in 1927. This union saw the abolition of separate parliaments, the adoption of “Westminster” as the Parliament of the UK with the inclusion of 100 Irish MPs as part of the House of Commons and 28 peers in the House of Lords.
The northern Irish border is a contentious issue affecting the Brexit withdrawal agreement as the “back-stop” calls for the re-imposition of a hard border. Karen Bradley, the UK Cabinet Secretary responsible for Northern Ireland, has reportedly warned her Cabinet colleagues that a “no deal” Brexit, in which the UK leaves the EU without a negotiated transition agreement to soften the jolt of departure, could sharply increase the chances of the province voting to join the Republic of Ireland.
A No-deal Brexit with a “hard border” could reignite violence in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement peace deal in 1998, which ended 30 years of fighting, used Ireland’s and Britain’s shared membership of the EU to soften the dispute over sovereignty on the island of Ireland. Consequently, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland disappeared. For 21 years people have been able to move freely to study, work, do business, and to identify themselves as British, Irish or both by taking whichever passport or passports they want. The return of a “hard border” would be a serious challenge.
Scotland wants to remain in the EU (62 per cent of the population voted against Brexit and 55 out 57 Scottish MPs voted to remain.) In the face of the insistence of the Scottish Parliament’s “rights”, the court reasserted the supremacy of Westminster stating that the Scottish Parliament is not a sovereign body. Such powers as it has, are simply powers devolved upon it from Westminster, the sovereign Parliament.
In the context of T&T there can only be one government, the Government of T&T, one executive, the Cabinet, and one sovereign lawmaking body, the T&T Parliament. There is no “Tobago Government”. So, what does more autonomy for Tobago mean?