A spectre is haunting Britain. Bloody Brexit, that inescapable, all consuming black hole of madness that has made fools of 64 million people. The world is laughing at us. Not just at MPs in their sodden, rat-infested ‘palace’. Not just at the mean and charmless void that is the Prime Minister. Not just at the official Opposition, who in their desire to let the Tories own Brexit have also permitted all Brexit narratives to be crafted by the Tories, so that the public has no consistent counter-story to explain our descent into chaos. From the New York Times, to concerned emailers in Kabul, everyone is laughing at the lot of us.
Brexit means Humiliation.
There is no good way out of this nightmare. The damage done by this Brexit thing is deep, wide, and enduring. There is no quick political fix that can finesse the problem away. A whole army of spin doctors cannot pass this debacle off as anything other than the suppurating double-incontinence of the Conservative and Unionist Party, a party which is neither Conservative, nor likely to preserve the union.
It is clear that the wretched Theresa May wants merely to wind up the first three years of Brexitism with a withdrawal agreement hastily passed by Parliament to give her the satisfaction of claiming ‘Job Done’. Even if that should happen, it won’t be any such thing. It will merely usher in the next dismal phase of this unending hell. Other politicians in her party, and in Labour, want to do something similar so that they can ‘move on to talk about other things’ that the voters are concerned about. Good luck with that. It’ll never happen. It cannot happen.
For one thing, Brexit has stripped away the curtains that once hid the truth about Britain after 40 years of Thatcherism. We see clearly now the damage done by that ideology to our institutions, to our economy, to the social fabric, to our capacity for competent government. For now, many people remain too Brexit-addled to accept that truth, but that delusion cannot long endure. And there must be a reckoning on all this, if only to rebuilt the basic capacity of the state sufficiently to totter on into the uncertain, shadowy future.
Britain is an island, but it isn’t ever going to be Singapore. It’s not going to be an agile city-state of the educated young, with a government untrammelled by the messy unpredictability of democracy. Not even the most free-markety Brexiters can possibly think that likely. Even if they manage to slough off Scotland and Wales, they’d still need to get rid of most of the rest of England to have a chance.
With less migration, our ageing country will be increasingly sclerotic. There are no sunny uplands to Brexit. It is contradiction incarnate. It will never please its advocates.
Moreover, Brexit has shown the truth that the Conservative Party is no longer a mass party with a wide social base and strong support in business. When a front runner to be the next Tory leader can say “Fuck business”, when a former minister can speak of ‘cultural Marxism’, when most of the former membership of an extreme populist party, UKIP, can decamp to the Tory associations in the shires to pursue an aggressive policy of capturing the Commons (leaving their former brand to the likes of Batten and Yaxley-Lennon), this is not the party as it probably was from around 1870 to the mid-1980s. You don’t have to be a fan of Corbyn to see that the real threat (threat? reality) of extremism in British politics comes from the hard right which has captured the hollow shell of the party of Harold Macmillan, and the tiny clique of hedge-fund billionaires and oligarchs for whom it is presently convenient to bankroll them.
And so we enter another week of soul-destroying pointlessness. Votes, indicative or substantive, will be tabled, a government of people who detest one another will blather on for want of any other ideas, and, quite possibly, the imagination-free zone that is the top of the Labour Party will seek to bale out May in order to pursue the votes of some bigots in unfortunate towns who have already long deserted Labour.
There is a way forward. The ‘quick fix’ of an extension to Article 50 to hold a referendum on May’s withdrawal agreement would not be the choice of any democrat keen not only to rescue us from Brexit, but to start the process of renewing and rebuilding our democracy. But if it’s the best we can get, so be it.
A better way would be to recognise that where we are now, this Republic of Perpetual Omnishitstorm, will take a lengthy period to bring to an end. We should revoke Article 50, and quietly promise our European neighbours that we will endeavour to be constructive whilst we sort ourselves out.
The next step would be a programme of consultation with the electorate across the country to find out what people really want from our collective social and political contract. This must be far wider than merely what people thought they were voting for, when they voted in 2016. It should aim to establish a new and explicit consensus about what it means to be a citizen, and what we have a right to expect from government.
At the same time, we need a constitutional convention to review our institutions of government at every level. The state can’t function if some of its most essential tasks are outsourced to companies with no institutional memory, or the capacity to adapt to emergencies and crises. Nor can a country of this size continue to be so over-centralised.
All of this requires new leaders, new political movements, and a hard-headed realism that we haven’t seen at the top for some time.
Are we up to it?