So, here we are, losses for both main parties, laceratingly large for the Tories, some in surprising places, the Lib Dems and the Greens cock-a-hoop, the NOTA party making a fine showing and the inevitable calls for a change of leadership – with May more at risk, what with being heckled in Wales and facing an EGM in June. (Perhaps Trump could orchestrate proceedings during his forthcoming visit. He has experience in saying “You’re fired!” after all – with his British Mini-Me already copying his “Lock her up!” slogan – and it may be the only act which might give him some measure of popularity in Britain). Party spokesmen come out with their prepared responses. “We must do Brexit” they claim, without even pausing to wonder whether an increased vote for explicitly Remain parties and Independents might suggest wider, different concerns.
Matters may become clearer after the European Parliament elections, of course. Those cussed voters giving the Lib Dems a boost now might well catapult Farage’s new party into first place in three weeks’ time. If he does as well as he expects, the cry will go up that this is what the British people voted for nearly 3 years ago: a No Deal Brexit with no messy compromises with dastardly Europeans and the ungrateful Irish out to trick honest British folk with sneaky backstops, let alone with those Marxists and their Customs Union. Never mind that no-one back in the heady days of 2016 ever suggested a No Deal exit. Quite the opposite in fact. The easiest deal in history, the EU needing us more than we need them, those German carmakers, all forgotten or dismissed as the realities of negotiations kick in. It was not supposed to be like this.
Like all revolutions, the initial demand for a trading relationship shorn of the political stuff (this from a country which built an Empire on the back of and for trade) ends up being discarded for a pure untainted Year Zero approach. Everything must be built anew. What existed before must be torn down. Only a return to Eden – trading on WTO rules – is proper Brexit, apparently, even though this is a chimera in practice. Any compromise with the Ancien Régime must be shunned. The fact that even agreeing the first stage of Brexit has not turned out as promised cannot possibly be allowed to suggest that maybe Brexit was harder than it looked, that the EU might not agree to all British demands, that promises made were untenable or inconsistent with each other. The delusion that it should have been easy must be allowed to stand.
So the cries of “betrayal” and “traitors” rise up against those suggesting keeping existing rules in place for the time being to make it easier for Britain to trade goods across borders and earn its living. Such heresy. Middle-aged MPs who have never traded so much as an apple become incoherent with rage when discussing customs forms or rules of origin. And how appropriate that it should be those with French surnames (Farage, Francois) leading this revolution – or trying to. Let’s hope that like an earlier attempt to reorder Europe, it doesn’t end up in war and dictatorship, with Francois as our podgy little corporal strutting round the stage exhibiting his martial skills (weekends only).
In all the discussion about what a proper Brexit is or whether any form of Brexit can be agreed, what the point of it was or is seems utterly forgotten, a mere footnote to the need to honour a vote, largely, it sometimes seems, to minimise Brexit’s impact on the political parties themselves. Possibly this is because the much vaunted benefits are proving illusory: immigration from the EU is down but is being replaced by non-EU immigration. EU rules will be followed in all sorts of areas but with no input into them, a form of taking back control which silently makes the case for Remaining rather better than Remainers themselves. And any trade deal with the EU will give them endless cherry-picking opportunities. Britain could very well end up with similar obligations to EU membership but few of its advantages. Little wonder that Brexit’s benefits are now so little discussed. Like WW1 soldiers in the trenches: “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here” seems to be Brexit’s justification.
More delusions abound.
“We must do Brexit but not be defined by Brexit”. Whether the Tories do Brexit or not, they will be defined by it for a generation or more. A normally pragmatic and un-ideological party has become obsessed by one policy above all, to implement Brexit, any type, doesn’t matter what, anything at all so that they can mention one thing in the “What we did this Parliament” column when it comes to the next GE.
“We must honour the referendum.” Yes. But why? Well, one very good reason: ignoring a vote when you have told the people that you will implement it risks a dangerous disillusion with democracy, unless the people tell you that they have changed their mind. Still, implementing a decision largely because you are worried about the consequences of not doing so rather than because of all the advantages it will bring is not the best way create a consensus that will last. The political and social consequences of doing so could be quite as messy and unpredictable as asking the people a second time.
Referenda in a Parliamentary democracy, in a country unused to them, can be unpredictable and divisive. The 2016 referendum has created or maybe enhanced a divide quite as sharp and bitter as the left-right one. Might not a second one risk aggravating matters further? The risks are very real. Yet it may only be another popular vote which has any chance of allowing a decision to be reached with some sort of consensus behind it, though this too may be yet another delusion.
“We must put Brexit behind us.” Oh dear. Where to begin? The Withdrawal Agreement is barely the start of the process. There will be years of trade negotiations, with all sorts of political, economic and social consequences, seeping into every aspect of our politics for the foreseeable future and affecting pretty much every area of policy-making. It will define how Britain sees itself, how other countries see it, how other countries deal with it.
“We must talk about what really matters to most voters: jobs, housing etc…” This is the saddest self-delusion of all. The political parties are desperate to return to politics as normal. So are many Remainers. But many voters voted for Brexit precisely because they wanted a change to politics as normal. They wanted their problems, many ignored for years, acknowledged and dealt with. They wanted to tell those who had neglected them to pay attention. Their vote has certainly jolted the political classes. But the all-consuming nature of Brexit has sucked up all the political oxygen, has made it exceedingly difficult for those political, social, economic problems which led voters to say “Enough: we want change” to be addressed coherently or at all.
The political will, the political space, time, energy, thinking needed to address the plight of the left-behind, let alone the many other issues the country needs to address – how to earn its living, for instance, social care, AI, the dominance of technology companies, migration, even, God forbid, its relations with its neighbours – simply isn’t there and won’t be there for the foreseeable future, no matter who is in government or how many fine speeches they make about the JAMS or against austerity. Brexit – whether it happens or not – and its consequences will consume British politics for some time to come. This is the new normal.