W. B. YEATS continues to haunt our politics with his ominous line: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Perhaps the most politically revealing moment of the week came when the former Cabinet minister Nick Boles announced that he could no longer sit as a Conservative, and walked out of the chamber of the House of Commons.
In a Parliament of fools, ideologues, cowards, party apparatchiks, and nativist nostalgiacs, Mr Boles stands out as brave. Setting out his proposal for a deal that would take Britain out of the political structures of the European Union but keep us in the economic ones, he said: “I want to make the case for compromise, not as something cowardly, but as something courageous. In a divided country and a divided Parliament, finding and sustaining a compromise that most people can support is a noble endeavour.”
His “Common Market 2.0 plan” was to return us to the “common market” to which the British people had agreed in the 1975 referendum. It might just, he hoped, bring the 52 per cent of Leavers and the 48 per cent of Remainers back together.
He failed. The hardliners said that it did not stick to the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto commitment to leave the customs union, the single market, and the jurisdiction of the European court.
This is an odd argument. It might hold true if the party had won a majority on that manifesto — but it did not. Only a minority of electors endorsed what the manifesto set out. So it is hard to see how this argument from accountability is valid.
In any case, it is countered by the argument from changed circumstance. “When the facts change, I change my mind,” the great economist John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said. Where does the idea come from that it is politically unacceptable to change your mind? Why is Jacob Rees-Mogg allowed to flip-flop on whether to vote for Theresa May’s deal — and not once, but twice? His argument was that circumstances had changed, and so he now must choose the lesser of evils. If that applies to him, why does it not apply to the electorate?
The Brexit on offer at the 2016 referendum is not the Brexit that is on offer now. The devil has emerged in the details of what it will mean in practice. We were promised on the side of a big red bus that Brexit would mean an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. The fall in GDP since the Brexit vote has already made us £360 million a week worse off.
Introducing his proposal to the Commons, Mr Boles asked his fellow MPs: “The question that our children and grandchildren will ask us is this: did you step forward to help reunite our country, or did you hang back in your party trench waiting to be told what to do?”
Mr Boles made his choice, knowing it was at the cost of his political career. Sadly, too many others have preferred personal interest, party advantage, or political ideology. The centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.