Since the Brexit vote in June, the British have had to face a whole host of apparently absurd situations that would not look out of place on a Beckett stage.
In Act One, we witnessed the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, whose ultimate contribution to British history consisted of a half-hearted referendum campaign swiftly followed by a whole-hearted resignation speech. If only the latter mattered more than the former.
In one fell swoop, his short-sightedness set a course for divorcing the UK from the EU and seriously risking the breakup of the United Kingdom, which has been a reasonably successful going concern since 1707.
Then, once Theresa May took the prime ministerial spotlight from Cameron, with no democratic election of any description to confirm her in her new role, we witnessed the farcical spectacle of a pro-Remain prime minister proclaiming to relish the challenge of leading the way down the red, white and blue brick road to a successful Brexit.
As if this were not enough to bemuse the enthralled crowd, the previously all-singing, all-dancing Brexit campaign troop of Johnson, Gove and Farage executed a dramatic twist after the vote by meekly exiting stage right. Since their referendum rhetoric already placed them on that side of the stage anyway, this actually proved a rather straightforward departure.
The next rays of farce began to dawn on the audience once it became clear that the Cameron government had no contingency plan for a Brexit vote. While their confidence in a Remain victory seemed laudable before June 23, the tight polls leading up to the vote, and the general gravity of a Brexit prospect, should have underlined the wisdom of some kind of plan B
Act Two of the Beckett farce opened with a protracted morning after effect as voter confidence gave way to remorse and an ever-more vigorous search for a hidden trap door to the suddenly comforting world of June 23.
There followed a whole series of challenges to the basic legal and political legitimacy of the referendum result based on its non-binding nature and its explicit circumnavigation of Parliament. After all the fuss, would the vote actually mean nothing in the end?
Nonsense, according to Prime Minister May, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and the divorce would go ahead without ever needing to consult Parliament. The irony of the entire vote was difficult to avoid.
The process set in motion by a historically revolutionary referendum, whose main purpose was to enhance democracy by returning more power from Europe to the British Parliament, was now going to be pursued by the government alone, without ever even consulting the very Parliament it claimed to promote and cherish.
As we now pass 100 days since the vote, the final act promises to be the most absurd of them all. For so long, the British government showed no hurry to trigger the all-important Article 50. Waiting for Europe to blink first, they tried to sound out the ground rules of the pending negotiations without triggering the countdown clock of article 50. Almost all of their announcements on the issue could have been accompanied by the trope, 'jut asking for a friend,' but Europe wasn’t biting and no real progress was made.
Despite the recent announcement of a March deadline, the descent into the absurd has still not abated. All kinds of events stand to prolong the negotiations and the wait for a final agreement. First, in 2017, France and Germany will both be consumed by national election campaigns, so their focus will not be on Brexit.
Britain may have to begin negotiations with one government but start from scratch with a new one from each of these key EU states. All the time, the clock will tick. Second, article 50’s two-year deadline is only designed to cover the legal divorce. The essential trade renegotiations are not included in this time-frame and are incredibly complex. Some estimates expect this will take up to 10 years and merely yield an inferior deal.
Finally, as a result of zero government contingency planning, most of the basic British administrative personnel necessary to make Brexit happen are still filling out job application forms to join the civil service. Hardly the kind of preparation that breeds confidence in Britain’s cause.
As time passes, Britain’s absurd reality is increasingly echoing Beckett’s absurd art. As the government tries to put a precise shape to an incredibly vague vote, it risks satisfying nobody in the end. While some people wonder if it will ever even happen, the more worrying aspect is that many others are still trying to figure out what exactly ‘it’ is.
As for the voters they are still confused waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON: What exactly did we ask him for?
VLADIMIR: Were you not there?
ESTRAGON: I can't have been listening.
* Peter Moloney is a visiting professor at Boston College.