Rules, Brittania!

Britain may not have a concisely written (but all-too-rarely amended) constitution that America does, but she is very much a constitutional democracy.

Never mind the vagaries of her storied past. Britain’s actual practice of democracy is as nascent as that of her erstwhile colonies across the Atlantic. Simply put, the tenet of constitutional democracy in Britain is that there are rules, which her subjects agree to abide – even if such lawfulness at times does not seem all too, well, democratic.

Wait...shouldn't the correct term be "constitutional monarchy"? But that's precisely the point. The institution of monarchy is as anachronistic, elitist and undemocratic as it has ever been, though it must be said that the current monarch has been a universally revered public figure for over three quarters of a century, and justifiably so. The Queen does not issue royal decrees, and she is not above the law. She follows the rules, just like everyone else.

This week, Theresa May becomes Britain's second female Prime Minister, not by a popular mandate but the machinations of party politics, and well within the rules.

The most recent public mandate, that of Britain deciding to leave the European Union by a 52%-to-48% vote on 23 June of this year, wasn’t even her own. Like most MPs of both the ruling Conservatives and Labour in opposition, the Home Secretary was on the side to remain in the EU. It was a referendum that her boss, PM David Cameron, called nearly two years ago, essentially asking the public to silence the Eurosceptic insurgents amongst his ranks. It took place just a year after Cameron had negotiated for a new deal with Brussels, followed by the Tories' victory in a general election; the timing couldn't have been better.

But those insurgents, the Leavers, roared. With populist fervor, they rallied to reclaim a dubious dividend for not paying into the EU, and to keep immigration in check despite – or, for some, because of – its racist undertones. On the very next morning following the referendum, Cameron resigned, relinquishing 10 Downing Street NOT to the next person to be voted into office in another general election, but to whomever inheriting the leadership of his own splintered party.

 

The way it was supposed to work – and, in the turbulent wake of Brexit, it was absolutely mind-boggling that everyone was still expecting it to work that way – was to have the Conservative MPs casting rounds of secret ballots for their next leader, until the number of contenders winnowed down to two. Then, members of the ruling party nationwide would choose the next leader and thus, the prime minister. The whole business was to be carried out over the course of next two months.

Then came high drama worthy of Shakespeare, with actors whose very surnames suggested they were destined for their roles. We’ve got Michael Gove playing Macbeth, heeding his wife’s advice to slay Brexit’s conquering hero Boris Johnson, so that he himself could save the country as ruler.

Gove’s betrayal expectedly discredited him, giving way for two women, May and bona-fide Leaver Andrea Leadsom, to vie for a place in history. Yet, just days into the spotlight, the political neophyte Leadsom faltered by committing the most feminine of sins, telling a reporter that, unlike herself, May could not possibly have the best interest of Britain’s future in mind because she did not have any children.

Apparently, unlike the presidential campaigns going on across the pond, the fate of a candidate running for the highest office in the land can still be sealed with a single gaffe. Leadsom apologized and withdrew her candidacy, instantly crowning May as the next prime minister. Cameron saw no point in wasting time, announcing the intention to tender his official resignation with the Queen within the week.

Meanwhile, the power struggle at the other side of the aisle has been no less dramatic. Whilst the Tory MPs voted for their leader, the Labour MPs voted to oust theirs, Jeremy Corbyn, for the same reason that compelled Cameron to call it quits. Yet Corbyn stubbornly stayed on, knowing he had enough support from Labour members outside parliament. As such, the rules of his party allowed him to stand in the next party-wide contest for leader, thus prolonging the dysfunction in the opposition – if Labour could still be counted as the opposition – for the foreseeable future.

So here we have it, a bunch of British pols abiding by the rules of the party and public propriety, and being punished for a lapse thereof. The result? A shrewd, ambitious woman got the top job, before she could win the confidence of the electorate, whose majority had just voted against her key political position. Now she must not only abide by that decision, but to be its staunchest advocate, and guide a nervous nation into a new, uncertain era with vision and fortitude.

If May and her new government are to have any legitimacy, that is, should they truly deserve a democratic mandate from the next general election, they must tick off the following to-do list in the coming months:

Invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without delay, and begin negotiating for optimal terms of Britain's withdrawal from the EU. Recognizing this as her foremost task, May has created two new cabinet positions, Secretaries of Exiting the European Union and International Trade, and appointed two prominent Brexit campaigners David Davis and Liam Fox, respectively, to fill them. May and Davis have apparently buried their hatchets, after Davis sued her as Home Secretary over civil liberty issues. Brexit hero/villain Boris Johnson, who has done much to promote London as its mayor, will now do the same for the entire nation as Foreign Secretary.

Enact a new budget that addresses the reality of a post-Brexit economy, including support for sectors such as agriculture and education, which will no longer receive EU grants and subsidies. To this end, May relegates Philip Hammond, Cameron's most recent Foreign Secretary, to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne, who held this position in Cameron's government, was asked to leave.

Implement policies that will safeguard the well-being of foreign nationals and naturalized citizens living in Britain. The daunting task of redressing racial tensions, exacerbated by the imminent closing of British borders to immigrants and refugees, has befallen onto Amber Rudd, who gets May's old job as Home Secretary.

Have a full contingency plan for Scottish independence, which may involve, among other things, the relocation or scuttling of Britain's Trident submarine fleet, now based in Scotland. Scottish voters have made themselves abundantly clear that (1) they prefer to stay in or rejoin the European Union, which is now possible only if they secede from the United Kingdom; and (2) should Scotland become independent, it is to be a nation free of nuclear weapons.

-- CW, 11 July 2016, updated 12-13 July 2016

   

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