Déjà Vu: How do you win a three-way race?

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during a debate before a no-confidence vote on Theresa May raised by opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in the House of Commons, London, Wednesday Jan. 16, 2019. In a historic defeat for the government Tuesday, Britain's Parliament discarded May's Brexit deal to split from the European Union, and May now faces a parliamentary vote of no-confidence Wednesday. (Mark Duffy, UK Parliament via AP)

British politics is far more complicated than its parliamentary procedures.  You have to vote either “Aye” or “Nay” and that put the Leftists of the Labour Party together with the ultra-right Brexiteers to defeat the “soft Brexit” deal 432 votes to 202. The Ayes and Nays together totaled 634.  So the Labour Party did not pull this off on its own, because it does not have 318 votes, or half of that total plus one. If it did, it would not be the Loyal Opposition but the Majority Government.  The point is that it is a three-way race and Theresa May is trying to cope with the “no deal is better than a bad deal” thinking within her own party as well as the opportunistic tendencies of the Opposition.

This sounds so much like the centuries of the Protestant Reformation. In those days, the “Remainers” of course were the Roman Catholics to wanted to keep the supremacy of the Pope.

The morning start of the Reformation was John Wycliffe in England, who influenced John Hus when he was studying at Oxford.  Hus took many of those concerns back to Europe, where they influenced Martin Luther in turn. Many of the issues found the way onto the 95 theses posted on the church door at Wittenburg. This was sort of like the Referendum which declared that Britain wanted to leave.

The Reformers also wanted to leave. But they were divided.  Some like Luther wanted to stay quite close to cherished church traditions, with the sacraments and the liturgy.  Basically the same church buildings switched from catholic to Lutheran, but for the average user, it was a “soft Exit”. Some Reformers, though, were much more radical. They wanted major reform and they were quite proactive about it. They reformed church architecture, removing art and even stained glass windows. They wanted relative simplicity, a kind if radical austerity. 

The Protestant Reformation played out differently in different settings. In England, it was Henry VIII who really took the (papal) bull by the horns and replaced the Pope as the head of the Anglican Church. But he and his daughter Elizabeth I were plagued by “Remainers” who kept trying to reinstate Catholicism. The Remainers were assisted by some European superpowers like Spain. It got positively military with the defeat of the Spanish armada and all.

Father Henry, daughter Elizabeth and grandson James I tried to keep the Remainers at bay on the one sode while fighting the radical reformers off on the other side. Elizabeth was better at this than Theresa May! In England, the radical reformers were called “non-conformists” because they refused to adopt the Via Media of the Anglican Church. It was a compromise, and like Theresa May’s, a controversial one. The Remainers hated it as treason and the Non-conformists preferred a “hard Exit”.

The difference is that they didn’t have a deadline.  So the pendulum kept swinging. Oliver Cromwell was the most awesome of the Non-conformists.  He even did away with the monarchy, and ruled with an iron fist. Jeremy Corbyn is conjured up as a terrifying alternative to Conservative government.  To the extent that, the night after the Brexit deal suffered the largest parliamentary defeat ever (combining both extremes against the Via Media), the Conservative government nevertheless survived a No-confidence motion. Cromwell beheaded Charles I and yet after ruling for a few decades, his own son took over. But the British people missed their monarchy, their dignified King James version of scripture, and the pendulum started swinging again. The monarchy came back, then one king (a Remainer) tried to bring back Catholicism again.  Finally his sister, who was married to William of Orange, over in Holland, convinced her husband to invade and he easily defeated the weak British army.

When he arrived at London, the people welcomed him and invited him to become their new king.  But he declined, saying that first Parliament must be re-convened to discuss the Way Forward.  When he was offered the crown by parliament, he accepted. This was the unwritten Constitution that Britain adopted, leading on to the emergence of Democracy.

Theresa May simply cannot agree to Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-condition to take “No Deal” off the table if she wants to rally more support in Parliament.  She will not abandon the radicals, who campaigned so hard to win the Referendum, in order to form an unholy alliance with the Remainers. Britain is too used to finding a Via Media, a negotiated compromise.

It is always going to be difficult to get a full majority of “Ayes” in a three-way race. Because British democracy is not a first-past-the-post voting system. You have to get a full majority. If Theresa May cannot muster a full majority behind her “soft Brexit” deal, then very possibly the default-drive will be a “hard Brexit”. Britain will crash out of the European Union.

Other scenarios are there, but not one of them seems any more likely to muster a full majority. Especially the prospect of a General Election, which could end up with the Oliver Cromwell of our time – Jeremy Corbyn – getting his hands on the levers of power. That prospect alone will probably bond the soft Brexiteers to the hard ones, securing a definitive “BReformation”.

This axis of hard and soft Leavers can keep at bay the prospect of a Second Referendum, or of back-sliding into the European Union again. The Conservatives would rather send out a fleet to defeat the Straussberg  armada.  The opposition parties should listen to Theresa May that her party sees it as its duty to deliver on the mandate of the first Referendum. Not to hold another one.

If history really repeats itself, this comparison does seem to be constructive. By the time that King James “authorized” his version of the English Bible, there were many translations floating around.  But the Via Media soon ensured that those other earlier translations disappeared. England came to love the Authorized Version, and it in turn has enriched English as a language. But there was plenty of controversy and even bloodshed in the run-up to the King James version. Including the murder of William Tyndale in exile – by the Remainers, who recognized that an English translation of scripture was one of the levers of liberating the Anglican church from Rome.

The French say that as everything changes, everything remains the same.


Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.