The pestilence of Brexit and the failure of the political class

25 October 2019

10:20 PM

25 October 2019

10:20 PM

The latest confirmation of the sickness evident in British politics these days comes courtesy of political scientists at the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff whose latest research reveals, once again, the risks voters from across the great Brexit divide are willing to accommodate in pursuit of their preferred political objectives.

Fully 71 per cent of Leave voters in England (and 60 per cent in Scotland) think the risk of violence against MPs is a ‘price worth paying’ for Brexit. It is important to note that the research, conducted as part of the long-running ‘Future of England’ project led by researchers at the two universities does not ask if voters would approve of violence directed against Members of Parliament. Meanwhile, not to be outdone in this race to a dismal bottom, a majority of Remain voters are also prepared to live with political violence if that helped produce, or was the price of, a political settlement they preferred. From which you may feel like saying this: Leavers are worse than Remainers and Remainers are ghastly.

But perhaps you will also comfort yourself with the thought that this is a purely speculative exercise in which voters are relaxed about the possibility of violent protests agains MPs or, indeed, general civic unrest precisely because they do not think it probable. Unfortunately, this consolation is removed by the pollsters’ discovery that a majority of people – Leavers and Remainers alike – think such violence more likely than not. Regrettable, perhaps, but on the cards nonetheless.

Set beside this, other findings – which include a general acceptance that the break-up of the United Kingdom is at least an even-money proposition and a widespread acceptance that, for better or worse, the country faces a future poorer than it might have been – begin to seem almost commonplace. A confirmation, if it were still needed, that Brexit is pestilential.

That is the context in which all political operations should be understood. This is a failure of the political class right across the spectrum. The Conservative party has failed to deliver Brexit, let alone an orderly Brexit of the sort that might enjoy grudging acceptance from Remain voters, and the Labour party has failed – to a quite breathtaking extent – to offer the kind of opposition that might ordinarily be expected of a party with even semi-coherent aspirations to office. That failure, less remarked upon than the government’s, has consequences too. Not the least of which is its contribution to the miffed fatalism now engulfing much of the country.

Hence, for better or more likely for worse, the sourness of the public mood. They’re all useless and perhaps, just perhaps, we are too. Better, more convincing, or plausible leadership would help here but it would not be enough on its own to ameliorate the situation.

Once again, this is no longer a question of policy but of worldview and culture. Brexit must still be done for that is what the people commanded but it can no longer be done in ways that command widespread acceptance. That is something close to a political tragedy and one that will have consequences.

There are no angels here. Leavers have been grossly cavalier with their language. Talk of traitors and surrender and enemies of the people and all the rest of it has had predictable consequences. It has poisoned the Westminster well and, wittingly or not, encouraged a harsher, more dangerous, public mood. That in turn has been reciprocated by Remainer radicalisation. It is not uncommon to discover ostensibly sensible people referring to Leavers as ‘Nazis’ and even if some of this is said in a yeah-no-but-yeah-probably kind of way it’s indicative of a wider trend. The spectacle of MPs, from all sides, being escorted from Parliament under police protection is beyond dispiriting. Sometimes it feels as though something could snap at any moment. And when it does, far from spawning unity and a sense that perhaps it is time to pull back from the brink, time to dial matters down a little, much of the country will declare that the other lot had it coming.

That, in the end, is on everyone. If there are shades of responsibility here no quarter is wholly innocent. That includes the press too. Until relatively recently few people (beyond their immediate families) had heard of Mark Francois or Andrew Bridgen or Richard Burgon or any of the other grotesques who, mystifyingly, have been elevated to extraordinary prominence in recent times. There is an element of cruelty here; a whiff of bear-baiting live from College Green. They are interviewed in the hope – indeed the expectation – they will say something stupid or provocative, not because they can tell us anything genuinely useful. It’s all about creating a buzz on social media.

Except it’s not really all that funny. When dimwits are given this level of exposure is it any wonder public discourse suffers? The worst may always be with us but they need not be on our televisions every day. Not every piece of low-hanging fruit must be picked.

In fact there are plenty of MPs doing their best in circumstances which are all but intolerable. My sympathies remain with those, in all parties, who accept Brexit must happen while believing it a mistake. Those Remainers picketing Parliament or marching through the capital grossly underestimate the damage likely to be done by reversing Brexit, just as Leavers, drunk on their own victory, lack an appreciation of the damage their cavalry charge towards the hardest Brexit possible has done to British public life. It has collapsed the centre.

A Brexit compromise – if such were available – still requires the UK to leave for remaining is no compromise at all. Instead, it would be a victory for one side in which the other receives precisely nothing. This is a point seemingly lost on more people than it should be. That means voting for a deal and perhaps even voting for just about any bloody deal. Boris Johnson’s deal may be worse than Theresa May’s deal but that’s why MPs should have voted for Theresa May’s deal in the first place. Take what you can while you may because there can always be something worse coming down the line.

The next phase of Brexit, as and when it is ever reached, will chiefly be concerned with mitigating the damage done, as an economic matter, by Brexit itself. That is made more, not less, difficult by the government’s decisions but this, in the end, may matter less than the damage done by this fiasco to the political process as a whole. Repairing that will take time and require leadership of a sort that is wholly absent in Westminster right now.

And so, can anyone really be surprised that the public mood is so grim or that voters are prepared to countenance things they once would have thought utterly deplorable? They may still think widespread civil unrest unlikely or violence against MPs disagreeable but such is the fatalism evident in British politics right now that they will accept the risk of things they’d previously have thought unacceptable. This is what happens when only the ends are deemed important; this is what happens when you rip up convention and trash norms; this is what happens when you’re careless with the constitution and the traditions of British politics; this is what happens when politics becomes a matter of identity-based ideology. For when you do all this, you may discover there is indeed a new reality and you may soon find you do not like it very much.

No wonder there is a sense of foreboding in the country, a nagging fear that something grim may yet happen; a presentiment that something – and perhaps everything – has gone badly wrong. The polling tells us this but so too does everything else.

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