We like to think of ourselves as a temperamentally moderate country, eager to split any difference, respect other viewpoints, find the middle ground. But the sobering lesson from the European election is that – on this issue, at least, we really are not.
There are basically three options open to us.
- We can opt for a hard Brexit. That got 34.0% of the vote (Brexit+UKIP).
- We can opt to stay in the EU after all. That got 34.9% of the vote (LibDem+Green+ChUK).
- Or we can try for a soft Brexit. There were actually two varieties of soft Brexit on offer – Mrs May’s deal and Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal (customs union, regulatory alignment, environment and worker guarantees). Between them they got 22.6%.
Moreover, it’s worse than that. Like most people in politics, I know lots of supporters of both sides. The people who voted Labour or Conservative weren’t, in general, actively supporting compromise. They were voting out of party loyalty or because they felt they wanted to use their vote on other issues.
Conversely, while I know both Remainers and Leavers who say they accept that any Government should aim for a soft Brexit compromise to bring the country together, virtually none of them even considered voting for one. Intellectually, they approve of the concept of national reconciliation. But their gut feeling is hard and tribal: they want to win.
Yes, to win. To Remain without ambiguity (via a new referendum in which supporters expect to triumph), or to Leave without a deal.
Unfashionably, I think that both May and Corbyn have been quite brave, and in keeping with what we say we want in national leaders. They put their reputations on the line to try to find a middle ground that people would grudgingly accept as a way forward. May has paid the ultimate political price; Corbyn is damaged. Many will feel satisfied about that. But we should be clear what we’re collectively doing. We’ve voted for a showdown in which one side or the other utterly defeats the other. If there is another referendum with three options – Remain, hard Brexit or a compromise, there is no real doubt that the compromise will lose.
The Conservatives are being forced into a Hard Leave stance, and I have little doubt that Labour will be forced into a hard Remain position. Ultimately one or the other will prevail.
That is how civil conflict starts. By identifying with one extreme or the other and rejecting the middle ground, even when the country is completely divided. I don’t believe that we will end up fighting each other in the streets: in the end, few people care that strongly about Europe to be willing to go to war.
But, as a lifelong supporter of the European Union, I do have a question for my friends who voted for militantly Remain or dogmatically Leave parties. Yes, I get why you wanted to pitch in for one side or the other. But in the cold light of day, are we sure we want a Government that ignores half the population?
Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe, 1997-2010