Every day it is Year Zero. Certainties ripped up, constitutional niceties consigned to the dustbin. All that is solid melts into air.
At least, that’s how they want us to feel. But who is “they”? And what is their purpose?
“They” are a changing cast, or perhaps a mutating organism in the body politic of Britain. “They” exist because there has been no real moment of reckoning that has consigned them to the past, or at least to the fringes where they can do no harm. “They” are snobbish and bitter at the rise of capitalism; “they” are resentful at the extension of the franchise to the middle class, to the working class, to women. “They” are appalled at the rise of organised labour, particularly when working class people enter Parliament, and then government. “They” deeply deplore the loss of an Empire they regard as a birthright and an embellishment, the ‘facts on the ground’ of Global Britain (TM). “They” chafe against the mere existence of a union of European nations, feeling deep in their hearts that it’s all a plot to bring them down, to steal their ‘specialness’, to tarnish their lustre. “They” have been with us at least since the Victorian age, perhaps longer.
“They” have been managed institutionally by the existence of a Conservative Party that has historically sublimated their fears and desires, channelling the passion of resentment and imagined loss into occupying a status, self-bestowed, of ‘natural party of government’.
But the Tory Party, as a kind of cultural hospital for the tortured psyches of people born to rule, and their supporters and acolytes, whether fawning courtiers, or chancers on the make, has fallen apart. It is no longer fit for purpose.
When I look at the real drivers of Brexit – the Owen Patersons, the Andrew Bridgens, the Bill Cashs, and their fan base – I see people for whom this is a “sceptred isle/This fortress built by nature for herself.” They see themselves as “This happy breed of men, this little world/This precious stone set in a silver sea”, protected “Against the envy of less happier lands”.
But they aren’t the leaders of Brexit. Brexit isn’t just about Tory melancholy. Brexit is the final stage of British Conservatism, in which its own internal contradictions, and those of the British Constitution, are meeting the world as it is, a small planet in the grip of multiple existential crises.
The shocking events this week, in which the executive seeks to remove the powers of the legislature need to be seen in this light. Shock and Awe tactics to delight the true believers, and to strike terror in their enemies.
But the Tories and their breakdown has come to affect the rest of the country, it’s brought the economy to the brink of crisis, it’s alienated our friends and neighbours, and made the country a place to be pitied. We have become pathetic, a country on the brink of a fire sale, a plaything of billionaires.
But it is also firing up many people to think again, and to think big.
This political fight is no longer about the 2016 referendum, and whether or not to leave the European Union. It is a battle for the heart and soul of the country.
The first casualty of Brexit was democracy. Those of us who voted to Remain in the EU, and who have fought to do so, have done a terrible job of helping to inform the wider electorate about the nature of democracy.
When I was part of a group of people assembling for a protest march against the prorogation of Parliament yesterday, I overheard two men who were simply passing through the square, and had stopped to stare at the people in EU-themed clothing playing ‘Ode to Joy’. They commented that we were the ones who were undemocratic.
This is a common attitude. That ‘the people voted’, and that is that. To seek to stop, to reverse that vote is ‘undemocratic’. It is a sentiment with a powerful appeal. It seems like pure common sense.
But this is a reality television version of democracy, where a vote is held, phone lines close, a winner is declared, and the losers can slink away in defeat forever. It is ‘democracy’ as a limited participation spectator sport. It is a debasement of democracy.
We need to explain that our outrage at an overreaching government shutting down parliament is because it is an executive act of arrogance against us, ‘the people’. When my MP, the person I send to represent the interests of my street, my ward, this part of my city, in Westminster, is locked out of her workplace, it is my voice, my neighbours’ voice, that is being silenced.
The Commons isn’t an annoying ‘talking shop’ getting in the way of letting a Prime Minister just ‘getting on with it’ – it is where every one of us gets to have a say in how we are governed. Democracy is never a ‘winner takes it all’ game. It is something in which winning is always temporary and provisional, and in which no voice is silenced so long as it can gain the votes of sufficient people.
The latter point – the value of votes – is a constitutional fault line made manifest by Brexit. People don’t feel that their votes count, because the system is inadequate to the multiplicity of shifting political allegiances characteristic of today.
The Blue Jacobins in government are uninterested in any of this. They probably aren’t especially interested in Brexit. They are revolutionaries driving through a political experiment. Some are believers in letting markets rip, others care only about being in power, still others have weird hobby horses about education, or the Civil Service, or the military. They are all thrilled by destruction, chaos, and the alarm of their foes. Revolutions are exciting.
They also tend to go wrong. The combination of charismatic leadership, unrealistically raised expectations in supporters, and wild ideas turned policies, will tend to end in tears and worse.
So as we try to defend constitutional niceties, explain representative democracy, and preserve the possibility of change happening in a planned, peaceful, rational way, we also need to think ahead.
The revolution is happening. We can’t go back. We have to go forward.
That means planning for what comes next. And it has to be big, ambitious, and inspiring.