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  • Brendan Shaw

Brexit, Britain and belly laughs: reflections of an Australian political tragic*

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."

– Winston Churchill

As the United Kingdom fast approaches the decision on how it will leave the European Union, I do wonder what Churchill would have made of the current discussions over Brexit negotiations.

As an Australian political tragic* living in the UK, Brexit gives me a unique opportunity as an observer to watch a debate in one of the world’s great democracies on a topic that is fundamental to the country’s future.

There’s been a lot of national soul-searching in the UK since the Brexit referendum to leave the EU in 2016.

We’ve seen a never-ending discussion in the media about what it means to be British and even movies about Brits battling dark times in Europe, like Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk.

Now, call me a burnt-out old heretic (and many have, especially my kids), but I tend to think the debate about Brexit now in Britain may come to be seen as a good example of democracy in action.

Those of you who think I have lost my marbles and should go dance naked under the moonlight at Stonehenge, bear with me.

What’s been extraordinary to watch in the last few weeks, amid a seemingly intractable debate about Brexit, has been the way the British parliament and the British people have conducted themselves in the debate.

I watched the parliamentary debate earlier this month when Prime Minister, Theresa May, briefed the House of Commons on the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement she had negotiated with the EU.

The debate in the House was, I think, a great political debate and a positive example of democracy in action. (You can watch the whole three-hour debate on YouTube here).

While the majority of MPs in the House from all sides of politics didn’t agree with her or her plan, most of them acknowledged that she had worked hard in negotiating a deal that she thought was the right way to go.

The debate was civil. It was passionate, relevant, informed, courteous and acknowledged there are no easy solutions.

And it was a pleasure to watch.

Traditional political party lines evaporated (as they have so often in the politics of Brexit) as MPs from across the political spectrum asked questions and expressed opinions from their own heartfelt views and those of their local constituents.

And, whatever you think of her politics, Theresa May did a great job on her feet for three hours answering every question, explaining her position, empathising with those who disagreed with her, demonstrating knowledge of the policy detail and articulating her strategic direction.

Unlike the debates we’ve sometimes seen in democracies on important issues, there was no yelling, no name calling, no litany of insults of opponents’ intelligence, no character assassinations, no misogynist or racial slurs, no three-word slogans and no trying to take down someone regardless of the issue at hand.

Rather, it was a thoughtful, passionate but considerate debate on an important political issue in Britain’s future.

On an issue where sometimes the public debate has been pathetic and woefully ill-informed, this debate was a real discussion at the heart of British democracy and it did the UK proud.

It has also been a pleasure to watch the debate among the British people.

The British have responded and engaged in the debate now with what the British do so well.


There have been large debates and marches with hilarious one-liners as decision day on May’s Brexit deal fast approaches. Banner’s like “This is like when Geri Halliwell overestimated her viability as a solo artist and left the Spice Girls”, or “Ikea have better cabinets” or “If we leave the EU, I’m moving to Mars” provided many belly laughs during the debate.

Social media exploded with all sorts of jokes, comments and memes. Check out #BrexitChaos on Twitter or the hilarious YouTube clip Brexit: a Titanic Disaster.

And around 700,000 people marched through the streets of Westminster for a ‘People’s Vote’ and against Brexit and there was not one significant arrest.

Make no mistake, there are serious issues involved, and the country is still very much divided on the way forward, both in the community and in Parliament.

There’s still the prospect the people themselves may have to have another referendum to sort out the mess before anything is finalised. The problem is that it’s difficult to know what question should be asked in a referendum or how it could be framed.

But as one commentator recently noted “Brexit may have highlighted the huge divisions in our country, but it is continually revealing our commitment to democracy at the same time.”

Whichever way it goes, here’s hoping the best traits of British democracy come through and deliver an outcome that people can live with.

So, will Brexit be modern Britain’s ‘D-Day’ or ‘Dunkirk’?

I guess we’ll know in a few months’ time.

*’Tragic’ – Oxford English Dictionary: “Noun. NZ, Australian, informal: A boring or socially inept person, typically having an obsessive and solitary interest.”

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