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Zugzwang

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The second edition of Brent H. Cameron’s book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization is available now on Amazon worldwide.

Even those with a passing knowledge of Judeo Christian religious teachings are familiar with the story of Samson – his rise, his downfall, and the circumstances of his demise.

Without getting too much into the weeds, Samson’s strength was unrivalled, but was undone when his long mane was cut by Delilah. Having been rendered vulnerable to his enemies, he was captured, blinded and tortured, then chained between pillars in a large temple filled with his tormentors. As the story goes, Samson’s strength was restored and, in a final act of defiance, he pushed apart the pillars, resulting in his demise and that of his enemies.

In chess, this is referred to as a zugzwang – a move where the strategic sacrifice of one piece lulls your opponent into a situation where they are forced to sacrifice their King.

To be sure, this tends to be a move of desperation or frustration, and it is not without its risks. Samson needed to sacrifice himself to pull it off.

As the Brexit issue reaches yet another deadline date, another ultimatum and another set of meaningful votes that have lost their meaning, it begs the question as to whether or not British politics has reached its ‘zugzwang’ moment.

As I had argued in another Daily Globe article, the British situation reads like that of Canada in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It destroyed the party of Sir John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker, skewed election results in at least one-third of the seats in the House of Commons for a decade, and forced opposing factions into a merger that still has some vehement critics, nearly two decades after the fact. These things are messy, unpredictable, and never get resolved without casualties. To this day, there are good friends who consider me in a not-too-complimentary light for the choice I made back in 2003.

When I wrote that in January, I suggested that it was a fate that could be avoided. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I believe that moment has come and gone.

Regardless of what party you support, you are now in an environment where all bets are off, and those who hold office are going to be measured by their stand on Brexit. More properly, they will be judged on whether they are committed to carrying out the popular will, as expressed in the June 23, 2016 referendum, or not.

There will be those who try to hedge their bets – as witnessed by all of the variations of proposal that seek to find a compromise between leaving and remaining. They have not worked thus far, and are less likely to do so as time moves on. It would be fair to say that every new innovation for a 2.0 this or a Plus that at this point will be seen as nothing more than a delaying tactic, or a means to avoid Article 50 altogether.

While the smaller parliamentary parties – like the DUP, the SNP and the Lib Dems – are relatively safe from the impending shake-up, the Conservatives and Labour are not.

That is why the party that forms government after the next election will not be the one that masters this file. It will be the one that is able to minimize the damage it sustains, because no one will walk away unscathed.

Despite the ham fisted way Brexit has been handled thus far, the Tories have some advantage insofar as they are more associated with Leave than is Labour. The combination of ERG stalwarts and those waffling about the umpteenth introduction of Mrs. May’s Withdrawal Agreement far outweighs the number of people on the Labour benches who have credible bona fides on Brexit. Most people would be hard pressed to come up with names beyond Hoey, Stringer and Field, and certainly not enough among the parliamentary party to count on both hands and run out of fingers.

And so, some observations from the cheap seats:

  1. An extension beyond April 12th based on anything other than the implementation of Brexit will be political suicide for a significant number of Parliamentarians. Even if a general election does not come for a year, there will still be a reckoning and it could result in the largest turnover of seats since the 1906 vote;
  2. It will be the most hard-fought and deeply divisive contest since the interwar period, with all manner of third-party campaigners, and vote splitting on either side of the Brexit divide muddying the waters;
  3. It will redefine British politics for more than a generation – ending some careers and giving rise to others. A crisis will do that, after all nobody in 1938 would have picked Churchill over Halifax when speculating on the future of the Tory party;
  4. The wounds of this political civil war will not heal anytime soon, and twenty years from now, there will be people who will refuse to share a stage or a handshake with others over what happens today;
  5. The party that wins will be the one that successfully runs the gauntlet of third-party interest groups, benefits from strategic voting, and – above all – gets the vote out in big numbers;

If you are a Tory who is committed to Brexit, I would posit that your likely way forward is as follows:

  1. Replace Mrs. May with someone who, while not necessarily of the ERG, has good credentials on this issue – that means triggering a no confidence vote and an election;
  2. Be unequivocal in your determination to see Brexit done, even in the event of a ‘no deal’
  3. Run hard, repair the damage to your brand, and get out the vote

If you are a voter of no particular party allegiance, and are adamant about seeing Brexit through, then your choice is an easier one – strategically vote. That may mean Conservative, but it may mean UKIP, or even Labour in some noted cases. I give this ‘advice’ in the full knowledge that no one is likely to be swayed or convinced by it. I say that because – I suspect – this scenario is already in play.

On this rollercoaster, the ride has already begun. All that remains is to try to hold your nerve – and your lunch – when gravity and velocity kick into high gear.

About Brent Cameron

Profile photo of Brent Cameron
A writer and commentator on Commonwealth trade issues, Brent Cameron is the author of 'The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade' (2004, 2018) and numerous essays and articles. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of Commonwealth Exchange, a London, UK-based research group. Cameron worked as Telecommunications Coordinator for the Federal Ministry of Labour in Ottawa, Canada before joining SES Canada Research (now Nanos Research) as a Research Associate. He also worked as an assistant to former Ontario MPP Harry Danford, Member for Hastings-Peterborough and Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Cameron was a member of the Advance Team for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the 1988 Canadian federal general election. During the 2007 Ontario Referendum on Electoral Reform, he acted as Coordinator for the 'No MMP' campaign for eastern Ontario (excluding Ottawa). Cameron has also served as a member and contributing columnist on the Community Editorial Board of the Kingston (ON) Whig-Standard newspaper. He holds an honours degree in politics from Queen's University and a Certificate in Municipal Administration from St. Lawrence College (Kingston, ON). In 2014, Brent Cameron was elected to the municipal council for the Township of Central Frontenac, in southeastern Ontario, Canada, and serving as Deputy Mayor in 2017.

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