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Hard choice

14 June 2019

IT IS not out of the ordinary for the UK’s Prime Minister to be chosen by a small number of people, in this instance less than one quarter of one per cent of the population. What is unusual is that each of the candidates comes with what amounts to a completely different manifesto. Issues beyond Brexit have been so ignored during the present administration that leadership hopefuls have been free to formulate their own preferred policies on issues such as taxation, schooling, and the environment — policies on which the wider electorate might wish to express a view. It seems, however, that the candidates will be judged solely on the plausibility of their pledges to “deliver” Brexit. The phrase suggests a neatly wrapped parcel waiting in the back of the van simply because the previous postwoman somehow failed to make it along the front path. None of the candidates is allowed to admit that the contents of the parcel have spilt all over the van, and that Conservatives are as conflicted about the EU as is the public in general.

There is an instructive parallel with the Anglican Communion. In November 2007, Bishop Bob Duncan pulled the diocese of Pittsburgh out of the Episcopal Church (TEC), a move that led, the following year, to the creation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Each congregation in Pittsburgh had to choose whether to join the ACNA diocese or the TEC diocese. In their observant 2018 study The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads, Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon dismiss the easy classification of a split between conservatives and liberals. They conclude, instead: “A primary reason for the schism in Pittsburgh is the simple fact that churches were told that they had to choose sides. . . Until that point, many clergy and laypeople had largely agreed on most issues of the day.”

Until 2016, the British electorate was able to hold a relatively nuanced view of the EU, although the influence of a largely anti-EU press was already taking hold, and would increase in the run-up to the Referendum. It was common to grumble about over-regulation while enjoying the benefits of EU subsidies, or to worry about immigration while taking advantage of free movement on the Continent. Such is human nature that the grumbles slightly outweighed the praise, and this could be seen reflected in the Referendum result. But by then the schism had been established, simply by forcing the electorate to make a binary choice about a complex political, economic, and social relationship.
The problem is that MPs are structurally encouraged to ignore nuance and ambivalence. Several of them won their seats by the narrowest of margins (683 votes in last week’s Peterborough by-election). But, instead of adapting their policies to reflect the balance of views in their constituency, they breathed a sigh of relief and followed their party’s whips. A Tory candidate who admits that he or she is unable to resolve the Brexit crisis might be the best for the country, and the least electable by the party.

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