President Trump’s visit to Britain next week will include ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, a reminder of common values and shared sacrifices that showed the two countries at their best.
In other ways, it will be a very weird visit. A deeply unpopular prime minister who will soon be out the door will meet a U.S. president two out of three Brits dislike and many clearly loathe. In an age of widespread public discontent, it invites a comparison between these two venerable — and struggling — democracies: To be blunt about it, which is screwing up worse?
So far, the Brits seem narrowly ahead in this race to the bottom. Setting aside the actual merits of leaving the European Union, the Brexit process (if you can call it a process, and if it eventually does lead to a Brexit of some sort) risks breaking up the country itself. And Americans have the constitutionally mandated chance of a do-over less than 18 months from now.
It’s true that there is more at stake for the world in the United States. Britain’s deep ambivalence about the EU is a big test for the alliance, an example of the stresses pulling at one of the world’s premier economic and diplomatic powers. The EU has more people and a GDP slightly smaller than the U.S., but it doesn’t match the muscle the U.S. can apply all around the globe. And for all of her failings, you don’t see British Prime Minister Theresa May openly pandering to racists and xenophobes, coddling dictators, threatening war or making policy via Twitter.
Unfortunately for Brits, the Conservative Party might well replace May with a version of Trump — albeit one with government experience. It’s still early, but the leading candidate appears to be Boris Johnson, a gaffe-prone self-promoter who also served as mayor of London and — without distinction — as foreign secretary.
The Conservatives were embarrassed by Nigel Farage’s new hardline Brexit Party in just-concluded elections for the European parliament. The results, according to BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, were “historically dreadful … not just a little embarrassment or hiccup.”
Typically, few really care about elections to the European parliament — and Britain only participated this time because it hadn’t yet figured out how to extract itself from the EU. So the vote turned into a referendum of sorts on Brexit. Farage’s quit-at-any-cost party got 32 percent of the vote; the Conservatives less than 10 percent.
Another way to read the results is that overall, parties that support remaining in the EU did better than pro-Brexit parties. That won’t matter much to the Tories, though. Most of those who’ve already announced they want to replace May are staunchly pro-Brexit, and the party will try to outflank Farage. Who better to lead the charge than Johnson, who made the bogus claim Brexit would save Britain 350 million pounds a week that it could spend on health care?
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in May’s efforts to negotiate a Brexit deal was Northern Ireland — specifically how to regulate trade across the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member Ireland. The future of staunchly pro-EU Scotland is an even bigger issue.
Scots narrowly voted against independence in 2014, but gave 62 percent of their vote in the Euro parliament elections to pro-EU parties. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says the British political establishment has treated Scotland with “utter contempt” in the Brexit debate, and her bid for a second referendum is picking up urgency.
On a visit Monday to Ireland, she confirmed her government would publish draft legislation for a referendum later this week, and said that it should be held in the second half of next year. A poll released last month showed support for independence was edging up. Sturgeon predicted that a second referendum would pass.
Much of Britain’s future depends on future elections: Whether to have a second vote on Brexit. Whether Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn can force an early general election. Whether Scotland gets to vote again on independence.
In the United States, it’s reasonable to fear that gerrymandering, organized efforts to disenfranchise voters, misinformation and distortions caused by institutions such as the Electoral College will thwart the will of voters. But the election of Trump in 2016 was the result of a perfect storm. This is not to argue that he can’t win again, but as the 2018 election showed, the U.S. system still can deliver a pretty decisive message.
Unlike in Britain, Americans outraged at the current state of affairs can at least be sure that they will get another vote relatively soon. If Britain’s Conservatives have their way, they will face neither a second referendum on Brexit nor a general election for another three years — by which time, even with their stumbling approach, it’s hard to imagine the Brexit question not being settled (and, perhaps, Scotland’s future, as well).
Both countries already have hurt themselves, and you can’t count Trump out in this kind of race. Congress is paralyzed by partisanship and a constitutional crisis is looming. Corruption is hiding in plain sight. And, oh yeah, we’re one miscalculation away from armed conflict with Iran.
But the country is holding together — so far — and another election is coming.