Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison

Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison

Britain and America have “everything in common,” Oscar Wilde once said, “except, of course, the language.”  But these days, it appears, something else divides the two countries.  While in the United States, Congressional Republicans have stood slavishly behind their President, members of Parliament have shown rather more pluck and independence.

In the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli advised his Conservative colleagues to “Damn your principles!  Stick to your party.”  Republican and Democratic politicians in the United States worshipped at the shrine of party as well.  In 1848, Howell Cobb (D-Ga.) defined the partisan imperative for his fellow Americans.  “Solely through the contests of party, from first to last,” Cobb proclaimed, “we are indebted for all the independence, rights, and privileges we enjoy above all other nations.” 

Party discipline has been the norm in both countries.

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Recently, however, in a UK divided by Brexit, the major British parties have been torn asunder.  Labour is in the hands of Jeremy Corbin, a doctrinaire socialist.  The Tories, whose “leavers” contributed to the biggest loss of a parliamentary vote in their nation’s history, are led, at least nominally, by Theresa May.

Enter three MPs, Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen, who voted “Remain” in the 2016 Brexit referendum.  On Feb. 20, they “resigned the Tory Whip” (i.e. left the party) to join eight Labourites, who two days earlier had formed an independent group in the House of Commons.

At a hastily-called press conference, Soubry declared “I’m not leaving the Conservative party – it has left us.”  “We can no longer act as bystanders,” said Wollaston.  Looking toward their alliance with ex-Labourites. Allen added, “We are about creating something better that is bang smack in the centre ground of British politics.”

The defection of three provincial MPs “could lead nowhere,” Professor Tony Wright of University College, London, acknowledges; “or it could become the beginning of the breakup of the party system which has been going for the last 100 years.”  That said, it does reduce the working majority of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons to eight.  And rumors of additional resignations persist.

In any event, the reasoning and aspirations of these three tall (Tory) women signal something important.  Ignited by Brexit, their exit is not only a profile in courage, but an approach worthy of emulation, for pragmatic as well as principled reasons.

In the United States, no such revolt has occurred.  To be sure, unelected members of the Republican establishment, including political consultant Steve Schmidt and foreign policy analyst Max Boot, have left their party.  To date, however, Republican members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have either embraced or enabled President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE, because they agree with his policies or because they fear being “primaried” when they seek re-election.

Although House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBooker prepping for first 2020 debate with bicep curls Democratic debates: What the top candidates need to do Paul Ryan praises Trump: 'He's not taking any crap' MORE (R-Wis.) opined that Trump’s comments about the “very fine people” among the Charlottesville white nationalists were wrong “because there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis,” he opposed a motion of censure as “counterproductive.” 

Senator Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Tenn.) referred to Trump’s White House as a “day care center” and deemed the government shutdown “a made up fight.”  Senator Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' Trump endorses McSally in Arizona Senate race Jeff Flake becoming Harvard fellow MORE (R-Arizona) warned against the president’s “personal attacks, threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, flagrant disregard for truth or decency.”  But their actions, even after they announced they would not seek re-election, did not match their words or convictions.

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For an example of an American politician choosing principle over party, we must go back to 2001, when Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), who held the longest continuously-held Republican Senate seat in U.S. history, became an Independent.  Jeffords attributed his decision to policy differences with the Bush administration over abortion, judicial appointments, taxes, education, energy and the environment.  Recognizing that Republican colleagues “may find it difficult in their hearts to befriend me any longer,” Jeffords changed his party label to better align with his beliefs.  His decision shifted control of the Senate to the Democrats.

It is rare, of course, for one person — or three, or eleven — to change the course of history, as Jim Jeffords did.  But there are times — contrary to the often cynical Disraeli — when putting principle and country above party and career is the best (or only) way to promote fundamental change.  And this may well be one of those times.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century." Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of "The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement."