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Dear Britain, Where Did It All Go So Wrong?

Ferdinando Giugliano

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Dear Britain,

Please excuse the rest of us for our sheer disbelief: we were never expecting a constitutional crisis, let alone protests around the country. You are making Italy’s political system look like a model of composure, and that’s not something to be taken lightly.

For years, we have admired your parliamentary democracy, with its eccentric rituals and timeless ceremonies. The brutality of Prime Minister’s Question Time was compulsory watching well before the age of social media; the speaker, with his cries of “order, order”, a reminder of what respect should mean in politics. Westminster was a model to look up to: A check on governments and a cradle for good arguments. We were envious, looking in despair at the quality of our own politicians.

The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have smashed our illusions. For a start, we were curious that one of the oldest representative democracies in the world would use a plebiscite to make such a momentous decision. Of course, there is the precedent of the 1975 vote to remain in what was then the European Economic Community to look back to. So we accepted this was just another eccentricity that happens every half a century or so – even if we knew deep down this was really just a way to solve a bitter conflict within the Conservative Party.In between all the lies spat out by the “Leave” campaign, there was one argument which was impossible to discard: The desire to let Westminster have a greater voice again, for laws to be made not in a distant chamber in Brussels, but closer to home. It sounded so noble. “The Brits really do care about their parliament,” we told ourselves. “If they want to suffer economic damage and risk a more diminished role in the world for the sake of having a greater say over their laws, who are we to blame them?”

Because for many years, British politicians were the first to wave their democratic fingers at what was going on in the rest of Europe. They caricatured the EU as an anti-democratic moloch crushing the will of national parliaments from Greece to Italy. When Italy’s lawmakers installed Mario Monti as a technocratic prime minister to avert a potential national bankruptcy, this was seen as an outrage. So too was the decision by Greece’s government in 2015 to accept a new bailout from international creditors. The hashtag “ThisIsACoup” circulated widely – turning what was going on in Athens into a cause celebre.

Now we see Boris Johnson suspending parliamentary democracy for the sake of showing that he is serious about a no-deal Brexit. New elections – which would be the third in four years – loom in what was once the land of political stability. Sure, there are precedents (there always are) and the government sees this is as only way to ensure politicians respect the will of the people. But make no mistake, for countries that have gone through dark periods of dictatorship, the sight of a parliament shuttered at such a momentous turning point isn’t pretty. That it happens in Britain, in Westminster, is stunning.There is another virtue that we foreigners have learnt to appreciate about Britain: pragmatism. After all, in the venerable House of Commons, the government and the opposition are said to sit two swords and an inch apart as a reminder that honorable members should strive to seek resolutions by peaceful means. Surely the British political can do better than to resolve this conflict by shutting down debate.

Please do so. The rest of us in Europe are anxiously waiting.

(Corrects description of vote in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the author of this story: Ferdinando Giugliano at fgiugliano@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Edward Evans at eevans3@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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