Prospect Magazine 15 march 2017
Oscar Wilde said “In a democracy, the minority is always right”. This thought has given me much comfort during nearly half a century fighting for liberalism.
But the post-Brexit debate has been different. A minority we still remain – but only slimly so and that has been wonderfully comforting.
I am fairly certain (Liberals don’t do certainties) that history will marvel at Brexit as the most bewildering act of national self-harm knowingly and willingly committed by an advanced nation in full possession of its faculties. And yet that is the decision we took and we must now enact – at least for the foreseeable future – unless and until the worm turns.
But the Brexit decision is only one of the puzzles we have had to deal with these last few months.
The other is why did Mrs May – again willingly and knowingly – choose to make a difficult path much, much more difficult?
Any good Prime Minister inheriting a country so at war with itself as we were after the Referendum would have placed healing national division as their first priority. But from her first unwise Conservative Conference speech with its demonization of the “liberal elite” and the assertion that those who see themselves as citizens of the world, are citizens of nowhere, Mrs May has, quite again deliberately, sought to widen the divisions between the 52% who said YES and the 48% who said NO. She followed this divisive rhetoric with divisive action, choosing a Brexit that puts the country as far away from Europe as it is possible to get (for which she has no mandate whatsoever), moving her Party onto policies indistinguishable from UKIP and attempting to bully her way to her chosen destination by steam-rollering a by-pass around Parliament – until the Supreme Court gave her a lesson in what it is to govern in a democratic country.
And so, our country launches itself down Mrs May’s Article 50 path to exit more divided even than it was during the Referendum. The public discourse is uglier, the entrenched positions are deeper, the level of vitriol is higher and the hate crimes grow and grow. For these divisions at such a difficult time, there will be a price to pay – including in the end, by Mrs May’s Government itself.
So what now?
As an exercise in whistling in the dark, the recent budget was about as good as you get. The Chancellor’s sepulchral style is not given to optimism. His speciality is calm. But even he could not hide the fact that this was a budget focussed, not on the sunlit uplands ahead, but on the monster of Brexit hard-times stirring beneath our feet. That’s why he’s not spending windfalls, but hoarding them. Big business, also awash with money, is doing the same thing for the same reasons. They both know that true pain of Brexit will increasingly be felt the further down Mrs May’s Article 50 track we go. If public opinion is to turn, watch what happens after inflation begins to bite around the turn of the year.
But the ambushes along Mrs May’s way are not just economic ones.
We are now facing the real possibility of the break up of the United Kingdom. Viewed from the moment, it does not seem likely that a Scottish referendum would succeed. But Mrs Sturgeon knows what most modern politicians have forgotten, that politics is dynamic. Snap-shot opinion polls tell you where things are, but not the direction in which they are heading. Status quo was yesterday’s dynamic. Fissipariousness is today’s.
For evidence, see Northern Ireland. Observers have long predicted that the time would come when the demographic balance in the Province would tip away from the Unionists, towards the Nationalists. Northern Ireland now teeters on this historic knife-edge after the recent Stormont elections. In part this is because some Unionist middle class voters now see a united Ireland inside the EU, less terrifying than a Northern Ireland forced to be outside it and isolated from its neighbours by a hard border. By the way, whisper it softly, some in Gibraltar are also beginning to view the competing claims of British and Spanish sovereignty through the same prism.
Mrs May’s ridiculous attempt to persuade us she is Mrs Thatcher reincarnated in kitten shoes has brought the country to the edge of a disastrous rift with the EU and given the nationalists in Scotland and Ireland cause and space to play fast and lose with our unity.
The problem with breaking things up, is that it’s easier to start than to stop.
Finally there is, as always, the famous devil in the detail. The complexities of the Brexit negotiations are as nothing to the whole roiling devil-fest waiting to break out when the Government launches the Great Repeal Act repatriating tens of thousand of EU laws to Westminster.
What does all this add up to? It may not be in Mrs May’s mind, or in her programme, or her agenda, or her intentions. But my guess is that as the next months tick by, the temptations of an early election will become almost irresistible.