This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands, — This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
— William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act 2 scene 1
THIS week, I venture to say that Shakespeare’s “earth of majesty” is not the envy of less happier lands. It is more the object of sympathy and regret. After it voted to leave the European Union last Thursday, UK now looks dazed, like a boxer who has been pummeled hard, and cannot find his way to his corner in the ring. It is saddening to behold.
I am saddened because UK is one of the countries I greatly admire and love to visit—admire because of Shakespeare, the English language, the country’s cred as “the mother of parliaments,” its great actors and actresses, its writers and many inventions, and the sense that it is one of the truly civilized countries on earth.
Living illustration of an idiom
But for now, UK is a living illustration of the famous English idiom “be careful what you wish for.”
The idiom is often used as a warning to people who are wishing for one thing, but might not realize all the negative consequences that could come if his wish came true. Sometimes, the saying is followed by “it might come true,” “lest it come true,” “you may receive it,” “you just might get it,” or some other similar ending phrase.
The idiom is similar to the cautionary warning about answered prayers. They come alloyed with doubt.
One funny story illustrating the idiom tells of a man whose wife got her voice back after 30 some years. And the guy was upset because his wife was talking a lot now and asking him to do housework even though he used to wish that she could talk before.
UK is in the situation of that man today. For years, it had talked and threatened to leave the union; now it has gotten its wish.
Catastrophe or liberation?
The day after Brexit, UK was not in the least united. It is in turmoil today, unable to decide whether it has been hit by a catastrophe, or has achieved liberation.
Millions of UK citizens have signed a petition seeking a new referendum.
Now, the country must face the demand of six EU members: “Get going as soon as possible.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his decision to quit. He will hand off to his successor the issue of how to exit the EU. The governing Conservative Party has a tough debate ahead in picking his successor.
The opposition Labor Party is facing a coup within its ranks, as party leader Jeremy Corbyn has come under fire from party leaders. He fired one of the most senior members of his leadership team, Hilary Benn. This led to a succession of resignations by other members from the Labor shadow Cabinet.
So the country is more politically divided, deeply unsettled and in uncharted waters.
Get the names right
Let’s get some names right on British geography. While many people use the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England interchangeably, there is a difference between them—one, UK is a country; second, Great Britain is an island; and third, England is a part of an island.
The UK is an independent country off the northwestern coast of Europe. It consists of the entire island of Great Britain and a northern part of the island of Ireland.
Much of the UK consists of the island of Great Britain. On the large island of Great Britain there are three somewhat autonomous regions: England, Wales, and Scotland.
Great Britain is the ninth largest island on Earth and has an area of 80,823 square miles (209,331 square kilometers). It is a tad smaller than the Philippine archipelago, which has an area of 115,831 square miles (300,000 square kilometers).
Why give the decision to voters?
The question that nags me is why the UK Parliament placed in the hands of voters the momentous decision whether the country should remain or leave the EU.
Why call the referendum at all? Since UK’s various constituencies are represented in Parliament, why did it not make the decision itself? Why roll the dice in a chancy referendum?
One profound thinker about representative democracy was the British author and parliamentarian Edmund Burke. He defined memorably the true function of Parliament and its members. He wrote:
“[P]arliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates… But [P]arliament 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.”
The reason of the whole went missing in the Brexit referendum.
Like Philippines’ 1986 snap election
By my personal calculus, the decision of David Cameron to call the referendum is equivalent in misjudgment to President Marcos’s decision to call a snap election in the Philippines in Feb. 1986.
The snap election opened the country to international interference in national affairs unmatched since colonial times. The Americans, the bankers, the oligarchs, and the elites called the shots. For all that, Marcos, by most trustworthy accounts, won the vote. But the forces he had unleashed were too advanced for him to stop his downfall. Within weeks of the snap election, he was taken down by a military revolt. We are still doing repairs up to now.
Cameron’s decision to call the referendum is many times more consequential, of course, because UK’s exit from the EU affects not only that country, but the world.
Was the referendum a misjudgment on Cameron’s part? Indubitably, yes. This is the end of Cameron’s political career. I do not see in him a hint of Winston Churchill, who bounced back many times from political setbacks.
The EU is now Humpty Dumpty, and we shall see whether they can put it back together again.