- March 09, 2019
As I write it’s now exactly 20 days, 8 hours and 32 minutes until the UK leaves the European Union. At 11 pm GMT on 29 March, unless parliament somehow finds a unity of purpose next week that it has not shown for nearly three years, all EU rules and regulations will instantly cease to apply to the UK. There will be no agreements between Britain and the EU on customs, trade, travel or citizens rights. We face the very real possibilities of a collapsing pound, food and medicine shortages, a breakdown in supply chains, traffic jams at the border, businesses going under, and millions of people effectively stranded in the UK and Europe in a legal limbo.
None of this was forced upon us. Everything that has happened since the June 2016 referendum is a consequence of our own decisions; of a referendum campaign soaked in dodgy money, lies and false premises; of politicians and an electorate that did not understand what they were doing; of an inept and dishonourable government that has proven itself to be painfully out-of-depth on every single level except maintaining itself in power.
If anyone has any doubt how useless this government is, consider what happened last week. First Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt blamed the EU for any breakdown in the negotiations, because the EU would not change the backstop agreement that the government itself had originally asked for, but now wants to opt out of in order to please the zealots in the Tory party.
Then the Attorney-General, with a breathtaking cheek, suggested that the backstop might pose a risk to the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland. While this was going on, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that he was ready to deploy the army to deal with knife crime. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told parliament that killings carried out by the security forces during the Troubles were ‘not crimes’ and Andrea Leadsom suggested that Islamophobia was a matter for the Foreign Office.
In short, this is a government-of-the-damned, a government that cannot and should not be allowed to govern. And yet that same government is nine points clear in the polls. And it isn’t hard to see why. On the other side of the house Labour announced that it wouldn’t be pushing for a second referendum after all, even though it seemed to say the week before that it would be.
It is difficult to know what Labour wants on this issue, as its different factions jostle for position and the party continues to fragment. Last week Tom Watson formed a new left-of-centre caucus within the party. And Channel 4 News revealed that the Labour Leave campaign, most prominently represented by Kate Hoey, was funded in part by Arron Banks. Meanwhile the independent group flits around ineffectually, and Brexit-supporting Labour MPs seem poised to vote for May’s deal if they can get big enough bungs for their constituencies.
In short, this is not the parliament you look to in order to avert disaster – not if you want to sleep at night.
A responsible government and a responsible opposition would never have allowed us to end up in the situation in which we now found ourselves. Even if you accept that parliament was obliged to implement the referendum result, the government and opposition should have approached Brexit with extreme caution, given what was at stake and the risks involved.
The government bears primary responsibility for not having done this. It was the government that dictated the process and moved from blustering arrogance to capitulation in its negotiations before defaulting to blustering arrogance once again. It was the government that triggered Article 50 and committed the country to a time-limited negotiation process without any coherent plan or consensus on what kind of withdrawal was desirable or possible.
But Corbyn also waved Article 50 through for party political reasons. Again and again Corbyn has talked of ‘respecting the referendum’ as if that was the beginning and end of the debate. Serious politicians would have worked on a common plan – however long it took – and they would have welcomed the opportunity to present such a plan to the public, with an option to reject it.
There is clearly a world of difference between a snapshot referendum that narrowly voted to leave the European Union as an abstract principle, and the practicalities and consequences of such a monumental decision.
To have acted only on the former without allowing the public to vote on these practicalities is not just an error – it is actually a dereliction of democratic duty.
Terrified of standing up to the populist tide and risk being accused of ‘stopping Brexit’ – and losing votes as a result – both the Tories and Labour fetishised a flawed referendum as the ultimate expression of democracy, essentially because each of them hoped to gain party political advantage from it.
The result is that a divided and fractious parliament dominated by two parties that are visibly falling apart and fatally divided, is unable to reach a consensus, and at the same unwilling to go back to the public and halt the disastrous process.
So we are looking at political failure on an epic scale, whose consequences will resonate for decades to come. It’s really very difficult to see a positive outcome in all this. The UK is unlikely to survive this process, which may be good news for Scotland, and Ireland too – if independence can be achieved without a return to civil war.
Wales may be forced to go where England goes. And that is not looking like a good place. Because in the end this failure is primarily a failure of English politics. Brexit was and is driven by English arrogance and English nationalist delusions.
These delusions have been our downfall, and unless something truly astounding happens next week, I fear that our fall will be much steeper than we think.