Brexit shimmers, or looms, depending on taste, either tantalisingly within grasp, or as an iceberg of stupidity towards which the British luxury liner, captained by a terrified and indecisive Theresa May, is heading at speed. I tend to the latter view. The band plays on, conducted by a ‘white face’ Cab Callaway, in the far less elegant form of the Foreign Secretary. Jumping Jive.
The question now is why? Why are we still in the grip of the Brexit toxin?
The politicians all know it is a catastrophe. The voters, most of whom didn’t give a toss about the EU either way before 2016, are confused, and, so the polls suggest, are gradually becoming more worried. They don’t know what is happening, but have an uneasy sense that it is all going wrong. Business is screaming, scrambling for bases in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, or sullenly hoarding the money the country needs them to invest, for fear that hard times – seriously bad, as Trump might say – are around the corner. So why not ditch the whole thing?
I got a sense of the answer whilst watching the film, The Death of Stalin. Like the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1953, our leaders wield their power with assertions of determination, and an inner dread. They, too, cannot trust their colleagues – every alliance can turn on a sixpence from a strength into a death sentence. Beyond the walls of the Kremlin were the people. Some of those people, (shall we call them ‘experts’?) are doctors, intellectuals, artists, scientists. These are people the politicians hold suspect. It is imperative to threaten and crush them, to imprison, and exile them. And then there is the mob, the people they sentimentalise in public, and sneer at in private. They fear the people.
They fear the people here, and now. For ‘the people have spoken’. Brexit is ‘the will of the people’. I heard a Tory MP say, “I didn’t vote to Leave, but the people made a decision, and we must deliver what they voted for.”
There is no way to get around the fact that a vote was held in June 2016, and a simple majority of those voting, on a high turnout, voted for the proposition that Britain should leave the European Union. Yes, it was stupid to call the referendum at all on such a complex issue, and yes, it was even more stupid not to impose some routine safeguards on a vote of such huge importance, such as thresholds for turnout, and for a 2/3 majority. But David Cameron’s stupidity is now being compounded, because the Tory Party, and to some extent, the other parties in England, really do think that something called ‘the will of the people’ has been expressed – and it frightens them to the core.
The referendum campaign unleashed sentiments, licensed modes of expression, toxified politics to the point of murder. Not hyperbole, but fact. Brexit incited the assassination of one of their own. Before the referendum I heard it said that politicians are frightened of the voters, and it struck me as true. After the referendum, those fearful ‘leaders’ think their fears were justified.
The Scots obviously don’t share that fear. In the North of Ireland, different rules apply. But it is instructive that the Welsh devolved government, despite the pro-Brexit vote in the Principality, also doesn’t fear riots in the streets of Merthyr if Brexit were to be stopped. It’s a matter of integration, if I can borrow a phrase from the opponents of multiculturalism. The politicians outside Westminster have integrated with their voters in a way that the priestly caste in London have not. (This also explains the phenomenon of Corbyn. Whatever else one might say about him, he doesn’t fear the voters.)
For the referendum in England ignited a kind of English civil war. Not the one the Tories tried to exploit in the 2015 general election, an English nationalism defined against the Scots. This is a true English civil war, a war of myriad grievances and many sides, and one over which Westminster has little control, and the London media has little comprehension. It’s a war caused by political failure on a grand scale.
Most local government in England now has little power, and even less money. Voters don’t completely understand this, and it suits Westminster to deflect the blame. This has all whittled away confidence and trust in politicians, as they seem (and often are) powerless. Forces over which we have no control run our services. Academy chains looting schoolchildren, energy companies raiding our bank accounts, social housing in the hands of businesses with an eye on the bottom line. It has all weakened the implicit social contract.
Add to all that the generational inequalities now made stark, the specifics of regional deprivation after the deliberate deindustrialisation of swathes of the country, and the growing cultural gap between the city on the one hand, and smaller towns, and the shires, and the coastal belt, on the other, and we have the shape of this messy English civil war.
‘Delivering Brexit’ won’t fix any of that. It’s already making it worse.
England had a civil war in the 17th Century, too. The dominant narrative about that time is that there was an Interregnum under Cromwell, after which the natural order was restored along with the Monarchy. The alternative view is that the English Civil War was a revolution, which led to a fundamental change in the state and its institutions, and in the relationship of the state to the people.
History doesn’t repeat itself. Which is not to say there aren’t lessons.
Our politicians need to integrate with the people once more. The state and its institutions must be reformed to be fit for the 21st Century. Power must be decentralised, and democratic accountability for services restored.
We must have fundamental change. And we mustn’t have Brexit.