The UK’s relationship with the EU has never been cosy, and, as you may have noticed, it’s recently become incredibly contentious. Worse still, and regardless of what happens next, this is going to dominate politics in the UK for decades.
The reason is simple. This is a matter of identity. Some fear being governed by foreigners, the nation losing control of its own democratic destiny. Some feel they’re having their rights taken away against their will.
How do you bridge that gap? You can’t (not now, at least). There’s a chasm between them, and you can’t stand in the middle of a chasm.
“Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.” – on oligarch/democrat factions in the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, Book III
The current state of British politics, whilst a great many are weary and quiet, is dominated by the raised and angry voices of those convinced they have the national interest at heart. And, by definition, those who oppose them are deemed not merely to hold a different view but, wittingly or not, to be adversaries of the British national interest.
Hence the rise in pejorative language. It’s easy to label someone a racist or traitor, and then not have to bother actually formulating an argument against them because they’re inherently wicked. But those labels sting, intensifying bitterness and raising tension to an ever higher pitch.
And people who are embittered and divided do not relinquish the source of contention but grip it ever tighter.
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha.
In a few months we’ll likely find out what the next Act in this play will be. There are a few possibilities, and not one will bring harmony to discord, for reasons I outline below.
The Remain Dream
Imagine the Commons backs a second referendum and Remain wins. The EU poses no significant problems and the UK ends up staying after all.
The political class breathes a sigh of relief, the media say it’s settled and we should unite, and all is well. Hooray!
If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.
The EU won’t stand still. Remain does not mean status quo forever, it simply means gradual, continual integration, as has happened over decades. And each time it’ll be fresh salt in the sceptics’ wound. Those wanting to leave the EU/EEC have persisted for decades. They won’t stop when they feel they’ve had victory stolen from them. Theresa May will be replaced, and the odds are we’ll see a pissing contest over who can be the most pro-Leave Conservative leader.
If the Conservatives have a pro-third referendum leader there will likely be a party political split, with Labour effectively becoming Remain and the Conservatives Leave. The EU will then be a core election issue.
Suppose the opposite occurs. The UK leaves the EU. No customs union, no single market, no deal, the EU doesn’t have a say over any law or regulation in the UK.
Will hardline Remain types leave it there? Unlikely. Leavers spent decades campaigning, after all. Not to mention there would likely be economic turbulence (perhaps severe) which would immediately be blamed on leaving the EU (which has an interest in a leaving member being seen to suffer pour encourager les autres).
The Leave side will dissipate somewhat, as it’s ‘mission accomplished’. Passion will be spent and the fatigue of triumph will enervate further efforts. The media (excepting print, and that’s softening) is generally pro-EU. The political class was pro-EU at the time of the referendum.
It’s unlikely, though not impossible, Corbyn would promise another referendum, but his successor could do so. The weight of the political and media establishment is still pro-EU, and that weight may very well prove telling.
Leaving with a Deal
Suppose we actually get a withdrawal agreement, and maybe even a trade deal after that. It’s kind of between Leave and Remain, right? Things could settle down then?
No, centrist voter, your hopes will be dashed once again.
If the EU has any say over UK law or regulation or trade (including Northern Ireland) that’ll enrage those Leavers who think the spirit of the referendum result has been ignored (after all, if the EU is determining our regulations/laws and we’re paying them money, and they dictate our trade terms, just how much of it did we actually leave?).
Meanwhile, Remainers will see that rejoining might be possible from such a narrow distance without losing Schengen and eurozone opt-outs, which will make their task much easier.
Both sides will push hard to either rejoin or ‘properly’ leave, realising, perhaps correctly, that Leave has a 1-0 half time lead but there’s still every chance Remain could come from behind.
Ideological divides, such as the Peloponnesian War example of oligarchs and democrats mentioned above, tend not to be resolved quickly. Consider the iconoclasm in the Eastern Roman Empire. Or the religious turmoil in England during the 16th century as Protestants and Catholics tussled for the kingdom’s soul.
All of those disputes lasted for decades.
Morris Dancer is a longstanding PBer and tweets as MorrisF1