From the Editor’s Desk, THE TABLET 6 December 2018
In politics, as in life, not looking before you leap is bad advice. Parliament may wish it could take it in the task it has currently embarked upon: to review, and eventually accept or reject, the Brexit withdrawal agreement. But the future is necessarily obscure whichever course it chooses.
Yet the stakes could not be higher. The United Kingdom may or may not decide to terminate a 45-year-old relationship with its nearest and closest neighbours and replace it with a new and looser one; may or may not decide to cast itself off into the deep seeking – or pleading for – new friends and partners to replace those recently lost; or may choose a path of even greater uncertainty than that now existing. In short, those choices are to accept the deal negotiated with the European Union by Theresa May’s government; to leave the EU with no subsequent arrangement in place; or to refer the whole matter back to the electorate by means of a further referendum. Though the outcome of a second vote would itself be entirely uncertain, and the formulation of the question or questions to be put to the electorate would itself be a difficult and potentially toxic exercise, this does increasingly appear to be the least bad course available.
Critics of the withdrawal agreement on both sides of the House of Commons complain that it would leave Britain half in and half out of the EU, slightly more out than in. It has been pointed out that either deliberately or by coincidence, this result closely mirrors the outcome of the 2016 referendum itself, which was won by the Leave side by 52 per cent to 48. Britain would be, so to speak, 52 per cent out of the EU, 48 per cent in. The problem is that the 52 per cent is made up of a very large number of individuals who did not want to leave by 52 per cent; they wanted to leave by 100 per cent. The other side were the same, and this is the polarising effect referendums tend to have. It appears, therefore, that very few people voted for the exact result they are now faced with – even though it is a good statistical match for the referendum result itself. It could almost be described as “the will of the people” – except the people do not recognise it as such.
The second curious feature of the situation is that it is highly arguable, as Mrs May has not failed to point out, that most if not all of Labour’s objectives regarding Brexit have been met. It is quite likely that had Labour conducted the negotiations instead of the Tories, the outcome would have looked very similar. Yet the state of Britain’s partisan politics is such that Labour sees more advantage to itself in opposing the deal, and undermining the government by defeating it. What would happen after that is anybody’s guess. If there were a general election, what would be Labour’s manifesto proposal regarding the European Union? Nobody knows, because the internal party battle has yet to be fought.
As for the Conservative Party, it is slowly and publicly committing suicide. The 2016 referendum was called by its then leader David Cameron to deal with the deep split in the party’s ranks over Europe. It had destroyed the leaderships of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, cost John Major a general election, and was driving Mr Cameron himself to distraction. He calculated that winning the referendum after a successful new deal with the EU would settle the matter for ever. Yet – the final irony – those Tory Party splits are now both deeper and closer to the surface than ever. Mrs May’s fiercest opponents are on her own backbenches. Among the many uncertainties the country now faces is her own future. How did British politics ever reach this low point?