Brexit Feels Like a Very British Coup

Investors tend to shun divided countries. Britain needs to tread carefully.

The center cannot hold.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong

There's a joke doing the rounds on Twitter:

Brexit walks into a bar. "Why the long farce?" asks the barman.

Unfortunately, it's too close to the truth to be truly funny. Post-referendum Britain feels oddly different to the pre-plebiscite United Kingdom; less united, certainly, and also somewhat diminished as a kingdom.

Less than five months after the surprise U.K. vote to leave the European Union, and at least four months before exit negotiations will officially begin, the acrimony surrounding Brexit is intensifying.

QuickTake Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU

While Prime Minister Theresa May is adamant that she's sticking to her timetable to hand in the U.K.'s EU membership card in March, Thursday's High Court decision that Parliament must hold a vote before the EU exit can formally begin has rattled Brexiters, who fear politicians may somehow contrive to stay in the EU. Here's how the Daily Mail, one of Britain's best-selling newspapers, chose to interpret the ruling:


Even for a tabloid newspaper, that's a pretty inflammatory headline. But it reflects the suspicion that the June decision might somehow not be implemented.

Bob Watt, Professor of Law at the University of Buckingham, has submitted a complaint to the director of public prosecutions accusing the "Leave" campaigns of the corrupt practice of "undue influence" during the referendum. It might come to nothing. But in the current febrile atmosphere, it might as easily come to something.

It doesn't help the atmosphere that the Prime Minister's speech to her party conference last month was damning about the lawsuit's intentions:

Those people who argue that Article 50 can only be triggered after agreement in both Houses of Parliament are not standing up for democracy, they’re trying to subvert it. They’re not trying to get Brexit right, they’re trying to kill it by delaying it. They are insulting the intelligence of the British people.

Both sides in the debate are anchored in their positions. The Brexiters say Parliament must honor the referendum decision and quit the EU as soon as possible. The Remainers argue that voters weren't signaling a desire to abandon access to the single market and weren't in possession of sufficient facts about the aftermath to make an informed judgment.

Indeed, a poll published by YouGov last week suggests that the remain camp is still in denial about the outcome:


The polling organization asked those who opposed Brexit where they were on the Kubler-Ross scale used to assess how people deal with bereavement. An astonishing 32 percent classified themselves as feeling "I don't believe people in the U.K. really wanted to leave the EU."

For anyone wondering whether Queen Elizabeth might feel compelled to intervene, that's a non-starter. The Bill of Rights of 1869 specifically bars the monarch from using royal authority to dispense with laws enacted by Parliament, says Jeff King, Professor of Law at University College, London.

"I believe, the Queen would never intercede in such a way anyway due to a variety of constitutional conventions which she rightly recognizes as constraining the scope of her authority," he said in an e-mailed response to a question. "So under law and convention both, the Queen has no power to intercede."

The government is appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn the High Court ruling. So either the Supreme Court judges overrule their brethren in the High Court, or they rule that the attorney general's case is still insufficient to let the government proceed without a Commons vote.

Those who believe that the members of the House of Commons are within their rights -- indeed, obliged, perhaps -- to ignore the non-binding referendum and reject Brexit as a mistake can take succor from statesman and parliamentarian Edmund Burke. His 1774 "Speech to the Electors of Bristol" provides a blueprint for politicians to look to the interest of the nation as a whole rather than the voting preferences of their own constituencies (emphases Burke's):

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion … parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

It's hard to shake the feeling that there's been something of a coup in the wake of David Cameron's resignation. The new administration made no bones about its belief that Britain can forge global trading relationships better than those it currently enjoys with the EU. And May's assertion that "Brexit means Brexit" is a great soundbite, but nothing more than a tautology without some idea of just how far the government is willing to sacrifice trade and the City to curb immigration.

Edmond de Goncourt, writing in the 1800s, had this to say about revolutions:

I feel sure that coups d'etat would go much better if there were seats, boxes, and stalls so that one could see what was happening and not miss anything.

Even though this revolution is bloodless and peculiarly British, investors tend to avoid divided, dissatisfied countries undergoing coups. Brits (and indeed the rest of the world) have a ringside seat at the Brexit upheaval. Thus far it's been an unedifying spectacle, with both sides guilty of exaggeration, half-truths and scaremongering.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.