Brexit from a distance
From afar, a few things are apparent as the UK reaches the point of asking the European Union to extend the strict withdrawal period it triggered without preparation now almost exactly two years ago.
Watching Brexit unfold from the distance of a month in the United States comes largely as a relief. The advantage of the removal undoes the logic of our age that more and closer detail is the key to greater insight, and not that meaningful updates less frequently can enhance the clarity of a picture. It is significant that I find myself talking of pictures, or suggesting that I “watched” Brexit, even though in reality I mostly read it, indicating that we increasingly relate to politics not as a structure but ever more as a form of visual media. That many Americans and Canadians have told me the extent to which they were or were not following Brexit also confirms that the language of social media, and of television series, have further blurred the distinctions of politics and what balance of information, distraction, and entertainment we expect from it.
Nevertheless, from afar, a few things are apparent as the UK reaches the point of asking the European Union to extend the strict withdrawal period it triggered without preparation now almost exactly two years ago. There is, as the parliamentary votes stand, currently no real appetite for a second referendum to undo the first. This is something of a paradox, because although most polling now suggests that most people would vote to stay in the EU rather than leave it, there remains a similarly strong sense that even if they do not respect the idea of exiting the EU, people do still respect the idea that the referendum result of 2016 should be honoured. The second referendum that seems like the only legitimate way of cancelling the mandate of the first, simultaneously feels like the thing most certain to prolong the national agony that the idea and delivery of leaving the EU long ago became. At some point, the tables may turn and it might resemble the quickest way out of the agony, but we’re not there yet.
To put my own cards on the table, I have always been open about both being a strong supporter (and voter) for the UK remaining in the European Union, but I am just as straightforward about the fact that the UK needs radical change. A decade of economic austerity from Conservative governments has already inflicted greater harm on the UK than it is estimated would arise even from the more extreme GDP declines in the hardest versions of Brexit. The average UK citizen, like his and her counterpart globally, moreover long ago lost the delusions that small gains in national GDP benefit them in any way whatsoever (in fact, such gains often occur at their expense). I am opposed to the logic and rhetoric of hard remain voices that present Brexit as a calamity to end all calamities, rather than just the latest (albeit perhaps crowning) in a cruel line of calamities inflicted on voters since the financial crisis of 2008. For the most part I grow frustrated with some of the more belligerent voices of the remain camp – mostly because I know that they, nominally, have the same goal as I do, but that their antagonism may well have the unfortunate side-effect of making the desired outcome of remaining in the EU less likely. The UK needs a process of national renewal kick-started by a new government, and it needs a process of national healing around the wounds that Brexit came from and then further infected.
If that is where the UK now stands on Brexit, here are thoughts as to where that might lead. This week, a motion by a small parliamentary faction, calling for a second referendum, lost by 85 votes to 334. Labour did not support it and nor, tellingly, did People’s Vote, the official campaign for that second referendum – poor timing was cited, plausibly enough, as the reason. The Labour Party did support an earlier vote allowing for a second referendum, put forward in January, and yet that vote too was—very narrowly—defeated at 321 votes to 298. The saga of Brexit changes by the day, and it is better not to get distracted by absolute statements saying that Parliament will not vote for a second referendum, but it is clear that—right now and although it is subject to change—those votes are not yet there.
So what has to change and where do these votes come from? The problem, as both the fraudulent concoction and subsequently poor execution of Brexit has demonstrated, is—put simply and because time is now of the essence—found in the Conservative Party. Within the party, the most serious opposition to Theresa May’s attempts at Brexit come from those who are unhappy not because of leaving the European Union but because they do not believe her version of Brexit to represent a sufficiently severe break with Europe.
There are only two possible ways to make the necessary changes required for MPs to vote through a second referendum. The first method is to change the MPs themselves, through a general election and with remain-supporting parties taking Conservative seats. The second method, if a general election cannot be triggered, is to change the minds of those Conservative MPs that form the basis of the Brexit vote in Parliament. These MPs have, so far, shown no real inclination to put national interest above party loyalty and career ambition, but giving up on the likelihood of their ever doing so has also all along been the single biggest weaknesses of campaigners who wish either to remain or at least put forward a second referendum. Whereas 90% of Labour MPs have voted for measures to moderate Brexit and only 10% for it, and 90% of Conservative MP’s have voted for it and only 10% to moderate it, criticism of the two parties, despite their vastly differing roles in the crisis, has remained steadfastly even-handed. As a consequence of this, the government has been able to minimise the political cost of pushing ahead with its disastrous (lack of) policy.
This relates to a further point that will become more important as decisions around Brexit grow larger, and if a second referendum becomes possible at all. The remain campaign is well-networked and well-resourced; it is frequently middle-class, educated, with people capable of lobbying MPs, appealing to the courts, writing to newspapers, and generally raising the righteous noise of civil society. Although none of this has so far been enough to outweigh the advantage gained by the billionaire media dynasties who supported Brexit, and the billionaire tax-avoiders who in instances funded it with dubious donations, the movement understands the levers of Parliament well enough to have a good idea of how things get done.
Unfortunately, and oddly, this is also a disadvantage, and it is why reluctant support for even the unwanted Brexit on offer remains resilient. When a movement has an understanding of how an institution works, the natural impulse for an easier life tells us to use that institution. The problem here is that Brexit, even with its many campaign infringements and the scandalously poor preparation of the 2016 remain campaign, was a movement won outside Parliament, and so it cannot be easily undone inside of Parliament. In sticking to what they know, in trying to work the levers of power, remain campaigners often reinforce the very institutions that people were voting, in many cases, in protest against.
To people who understand parliamentary procedure and optimal strategies for using that procedure, it might seem a frightful waste of energy to take to the streets, hand out leaflets, and talk to strangers in areas they’ve never visited, but that is where the only positive resolution on Brexit waits, and where the remain campaign must look, if it truly wants either a second referendum or eventually to win it. Without doing this, the political currency that Brexit created for itself cannot be reduced, and people will go on thinking that Brexit is, if not desirable, then at least still legitimate.
The final factor, often mentioned but never unpacked in the media around the Conservative Party and Theresa May’s handling of Brexit is the politics of shame, or rather, shamelessness. If despots of the world are incubated by wealth and sycophants against the consequences of their actions, then the Conservative Party, regarded deep inside it and UK society as “the party of government”, is similarly well-guarded from the effects of reality. Theresa May comes from—and has come this far—in a game where, from her upbringing, all she had to do was tread a certain path, make no waves, and in return, she could expect the world to open for her.
Sadly for Britain, this formula, on which many Oxford and Cambridge-graduate careers are based, is—at home—disappointingly reliable. Unfortunately for Theresa May, once the peculiar mixture of decorum, inhibitions, and entitlement that make up the British class system meet with the outside world, they quickly become ludicrous and you are left to deal with the facts. A trading bloc of 27 nations and a billion people is not about to shift course or undermine itself just to save the blushes of a well-brought-up woman from the southeast of England. Theresa May is, herself, steadily beginning to realise as much. Once the same reality dawns with the full horror it warrants on the rest of the country, perhaps the UK will realise that what it most needed all along was neither to leave the EU nor wind up fighting for repeat referendums, but more simply, a different government. Sometimes, in politics as in life, you have to step away for a while for the obvious to become clearer.