From the outset, Brexit was never deliverable in the terms that were promised. The political class posed a question that it could not answer. The Leave campaign offered voters a fantasy, rather than a pragmatic programme: vowing to end free movement, retain the economic benefits of EU membership, withdraw Britain from the customs union and avoid a hard Irish border – aims that were inherently irreconcilable. Labour’s alternative plan for Brexit has been just as opportunistic and opaque.
For a resilient parliamentary democracy such as the United Kingdom, the 2016 referendum was a constitutionally subversive event. Never before had a national plebiscite rejected, rather than affirmed, the status quo.
In 1945, after Winston Churchill proposed staging a public vote on the extension of the wartime coalition, his then deputy, Labour’s Clement Attlee, replied: “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions.” As Mr Attlee feared, this mechanism has now collided with the UK’s delicate, unwritten constitution.
The parliamentary imbroglio – prompted by the Speaker John Bercow’s refusal to permit a third consecutive vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal (the so-called MV3) – reflects the depth of the Brexit crisis. For decades, Eurosceptics revered Britain’s sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary and its neutral civil service, but the Brexit vote established an alternative centre of power: the people.
Though the Leave vote was technically advisory, MPs voted by 498 to 114 in February 2017 to invoke Article 50. But they have since rejected all proposed forms of Brexit – and non-Brexit – as unacceptable. Mrs May’s deal was first defeated by 230 votes (the biggest defeat in history) and then by 149 votes (the fourth biggest). On 14 March, the alleged panacea of a second referendum was rejected by a majority of 249 votes. A mere week before its original departure date of 29 March, Britain’s fate remains humiliatingly uncertain.
This week, writers including David Hare, Rowan Williams, Elif Shafak, Paul Collier and Yanis Varoufakis examine the antecedents and consequences of the Brexit debacle. The Leave vote was not merely a rejection of the EU, it is argued, but a symptom of far greater economic and social discontent. It was one of a succession of shocks to the British system: the 2008 financial crisis, the imposition of austerity by David Cameron’s coalition government, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. Yet at no point since has the UK carried out the fundamental economic, social and constitutional evaluation required.
The present crisis both reflects and reinforces Britain’s long-standing defects: an over-centralised and opaque political system, economic and regional inequalities, an incomplete devolution settlement (with England denied its own assembly or parliament), an antiquated electoral system and an enfeebled public realm.
Rather than seeking to force Mrs May’s Brexit deal through parliament, the government should now seek a long extension to Article 50 (which will require EU agreement). This would end the febrile debate of recent weeks and create the space for more profound reflection on the state of the nation. For too long, the political classes have ignored the morbid symptoms that created the Brexit crisis. They must begin to address them – or face further humiliation.
Michael Axworthy (1962-2019)
Michael Axworthy, who died this week aged 56, was a distinguished scholar, an expert on Iran, and, in recent years, a New Statesman contributor. His most recent cover story, published in February, was an exploration of the legacy of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
He studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he fell under the influence of Maurice Cowling; worked at the Foreign Office, where he was head of the Iran section; and then became a full-time writer and academic, teaching Middle East history at the University of Exeter. He was a pleasure to work with. He was erudite, diligent and always courteous in the way he responded to editorial suggestions. We shall miss his contributions to the New Statesman and send our condolences to his family.
This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency