A stormy year in Brexit Britain  

21 December 2018

But the UK has not a reached constitutional crisis — yet, says Nick Spencer

PA

The Prime Minister after church in her Maidenhead constituency, on Sunday

The Prime Minister after church in her Maidenhead constituency, on Sunday

HALF an hour, it now seems, is a long time in politics.

At the start of last week, the Prime Minister was heading for a significant parliamentary defeat that would have ended her Brexit plans, and possibly her premiership. The vote was then called off. The next morning, Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the Tory Party’s 1922 Committee, had received the requisite number of letters to trigger a confidence vote in May’s leadership. The vote was held that evening. She survived, albeit clearly wounded.

She then returned to Brussels, where European leaders were making positive noises and there were rumours about the preparation of a more emollient draft document, only, the following morning, to be rebuffed. On Monday, she announced that a vote on her Brexit deal would be held in the week beginning 14 January.

How, one might fairly ask, is it possible to write a retrospective on 2018, let alone one that looks forward to 2019, when events are moving at that pace? Deal or no deal. Extension of Article 50 or Crash Out and Burn. Prime Minister May or Prime Minister Someone Else. A Second Referendum or another General Election. Which of these is the legacy of 2018 or the fate of 2019?

 

IN SUCH circumstances, it is sorely tempting to abandon the attempt to say anything sensible about politics, and to write about something completely different.

Mercifully, just as I was about to despair, the editor sent me my review of 2017, which I read with the narcissistic pleasure reserved for all occasional writers. What struck me was how I could have happily copied and pasted almost every word into this article. I had written about political tribalism, about how longstanding and ineradicable it was, about how politics was our always inadequate, always revisable attempt to deal with it, and how the events of 2017 were making this ever more difficult.

The fact that I could have written every word of this a year later, and yet was feeling discombobulated by the rapidity of events, was, on reflection, an apparent but instructive paradox. Events have indeed been moving rapidly and unpredictably, but they are, in effect, storms of the surface. And, much like climate-change sceptics, political commentators are apt to confuse weather with climate.

This year, like last, and like 2016, has been one of many and powerful political storms. The word “crisis” has been much used, often coupled with the word “constitutional” but the truth is that this is not a crisis, constitutional or otherwise. It is politics: rough, angry, sometimes shoddy, and frustratingly irresolvable politics — but politics just the same.

Crises are what happens when people stop talking to one another, or when they stop believing in the legitimacy of the structures through which they voice their opinions. We are a long way from that at the moment. Indeed, if recent news is anything to judge by, France, with its gilets jaunes protesters and riot police turning Paris into a battlefield, seems to be closer to crisis than we are. Think what they’d be like if they had Frexit to negotiate.

All that noted, repeated storms can do lasting damage; indeed, they can be an indication that the climate has actually changed. Another year of bitter division and name-calling will increase the cost to our common life, a cost that would be exacerbated dramatically if we were to crash out without the economic stability of a formal deal (although Parliament, at least, does seem determined to prevent that option).

Similarly, if there were a second referendum in which Remain won by a small margin, and the powers that be decided to forget that the past two-and-a-half years had happened, the sense of disenfranchisement and political humiliation felt by many of the 17.4 million people who voted Leave in 2016 would be colossal.

This year, like its predecessors and, on current trends, its successor, has taken a toll on Mrs May, the Conservative Party, and the prospects we have of leaving the EU smoothly. But its most serious, if not most evident, toll has been on our trust in one another, and the system of parliamentary representation and discussion which we once took pride in. Such harm can be made good. Political storm damage can be severe, but is usually reparable. Political climate change is a different matter.

 

SO, THE question left hanging is: is this just a freak political weather pattern, like those that periodically batter any democracy, no matter how mature or stable? Will historians view 2016-19 in the same way as they do Edward Heath’s 1974 State of Emergency or Callaghan’s Winter of Discontent in 1978-79? Or is the entire political climate actually changing, as it seems to be in a number of European countries and, arguably, the US?

My money is on the former. Political stability has its own momentum, and the UK has been, in comparative terms, very politically stable for a very long time. It would take a great deal to tip our system into genuine, let alone violent, chaos — although some warn that a second referendum might just do that. We shouldn’t talk ourselves into a crisis. Yet, to return to our controlling metaphor, if we ignore the political storms and continue pouring pollution into our common environment, we shouldn’t be surprised if we do reach a tipping-point.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

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