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Brexit has left the British political class trapped by its own history

The ruling elite failed to grasp that the 2016 referendum changed politics irrevocably.

Whatever its outcome, the Brexit process will leave Britain at its least governable since the Seventies. Opening the way to the parliamentary insurrection in which MPs have attempted to seize power from government, Gina Miller’s Supreme Court victory in January 2017 transferred authority to a House of Commons that nobody controls. While they oppose no deal, MPs have been unable to converge on an alternative that would prevent it. Fragmentation in the two main parties has been welcomed as offering a way out of the impasse, and the emergence of the Independent Group (TIG) hailed as the beginning of a new centrist force. But there is little reason to think voters will flock to a party that offers to take them back to the conditions that led to their present alienation – the strange nostalgic vision that possesses centrist liberals. A post-Cold War era that included the Iraq War, the financial crisis and a decade of austerity is not a time to which many people long to return.

Nor has TIG’s appearance made the Brexit impasse any less intractable. The rejection of May’s withdrawal agreement leaves the House of Commons as divided as before. MPs reject no deal and will support an extension of Article 50. Indicative votes exploring whether there is a majority for any other alternative are likely to follow. The end-result of over two years of bargaining and manoeuvring is that nothing has been agreed. Until there is a majority in the Commons for a deal the EU can accept there is no way through the Brexit deadlock.

Such dilemmas of collective choice are familiar to students of game theory, but they are not the only failure of reason at work in British politics today. A more fundamental factor is the refusal of the political class to respond intelligently to the 2016 referendum. Instead of trying to understand and implement its result, they have treated it as an eruption of unreason that must be resisted at any cost. There are notable exceptions such as Labour’s Caroline Flint, who voted Remain but understands the significance of the Leave vote in her and other constituencies. But most of the political class has proved incapable of adapting its thinking to the mass disaffection that the referendum revealed. Instead, by seeking to thwart the result they have deepened the estrangement of voters from the political system.

A popular narrative has it that the responsibility for the stalemate lies with a rump of Tory Leavers obsessed with an imaginary British past. Wodehouse-like figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg play into this story, which has the advantage of exempting the rest of the political class from any blame. But it is a body of uber-Remainers strongly represented in many of Britain’s ruling institutions that has posed the greatest obstacle to a Brexit that most people could live with. Millions voted Remain because they believed Britain’s semi-detached position in Europe represented a sensible compromise. For uber-Remainers, there has never been any question of compromise. For them the EU is a higher form of government, which it could never be rational to leave. They think of themselves as embodiments of reason, facing down the ignorant passions of the unwashed rabble. But their rationalism is a vehicle for a dangerous myth, in which the EU is a semi-sacred institution rather than a failing political experiment.

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The attempt to construct a transnational European state has left the EU multiply divided, and riddled with populist movements. While it has benefited Germany and its satellites, the dysfunctional euro has left much of southern Europe in stagnation. In the east post-communist countries flout the authority of the EU in a number of areas, not least by rejecting migrant quotas. The combination of free movement with porous external borders has fuelled right-wing nationalism throughout the EU. The upshot of what its supporters regard as a quintessentially liberal project is that European liberal values are in greater danger than at any time since the 1930s.

The chief feature of Remainer discourse is that the actual condition of the EU is hardly ever mentioned. Among all the embarrassingly hackneyed investigations of the post-imperial English psyche by writers such as Fintan O’Toole that litter the liberal media, you will struggle to find any reference to the dark forces that are shaping European politics. France is convulsed by rioting “yellow vests”, a sizeable number of whom share the hateful prejudice that led to the French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, one of their early supporters, being abused by members of the movement in Paris.

As elements in the Alternative für Deutschland party, Nazis are in the Reichstag for the first time since 1945. Italy is governed by acoalition that includes heirs to fascism. Hungary and Poland are in the tightening grip of illiberal democracy, the Czech Republic ruled by a populist billionaire with close links to Russia, and Austria by a coalition that includes a party whose first leader was an SS officer. Sweden is struggling to keep the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats out of government, while the far right doubled its support in the recent elections in Estonia.

Despite living memories of Franco’s tyranny, the far right is winning seats in provincial elections in Spain. In some countries (particularly Portugal) parties of the left are showing signs of stirring, but the most vigorous are left-nationalists including Sahra Wagenknecht’s German Die Linke party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise – critics of the EU that reject free movement – or far-left Greens. Centre-right parties are tracking the far right, which is poised to become a pivotal group in the European Parliament after the elections in May, while the centre left is practically defunct. Yet an idea of a united liberal Europe lingers on, a fading apparition of a vanished future.

If the deepening European disorder is noticed it is only to insist that another Europe is possible. The Europe that actually exists – a brittle neoliberal construction presiding over a continent-wide shift to authoritarian nationalism – is dismissed as a temporary aberration. Yet all the prevailing trends point to worsening crisis. The strongly pro-Remain George Soros has warned that unless it wakes up “the European Union will go the way of the Soviet Union in 1991”. Some insist that Britain should stay in the EU in order to join with other countries in saving it. But the EU has shown no willingness, over the past decade, to consider any fundamental reform.

Greece remains entombed in a generation-long depression because the EU refused to consider giving the country a break from the euro and instead imposed the costs of bailing out European banks on some of the continent’s poorest citizens. The EU continues to press austerity on Italy, whose economy has hardly grown for decades. In his latest pronouncements Emmanuel Macron is adamant that the solution for the European crisis is “more Europe” – in other words, more of the same centralisation that has provoked the populist backlash. Given these facts, remaining in the EU carries risks at least as large as those incurred by leaving. But facts are not what uber-Remainers want. The fantasy that another Europe is on the horizon allows them to evade the mortifying truth that the European project belongs in the past.

The trouble with rationalism in politics is that it consistently misreads political realities. Consider the outrage that surrounds Jeremy Corbyn’s continuing equivocations on a second referendum. There is nothing surprising in his ambivalence. Aside from his well-known Eurosceptic leanings, Labour’s ambiguities have been highly effective as an electoral strategy. In 2017, the party pulled off the trick of standing on a manifesto promising to honour the referendum result that kept its working-class Leave supporters on side while encouraging legions of middle-class graduates to believe that the party endorsed Remain. Close observers have long recognised this as an exercise in what Russians call vranyo – the practice of telling lies that no one will believe. In this case, however, large numbers – citing a procedural motion passed at the last party conference – were eager to swallow the deception.

In response to pressure from John McDonnell, Tom Watson and Keir Starmer, Corbyn has committed to something like a second referendum. But he does so in the knowledge that a second vote is very unlikely to happen. He has retained the freedom to decide on what terms it would be held – on some variation of May’s deal, for example – and has not committed to a vote if parliament agrees to leave the EU on terms that Labour accepts. For Corbyn the promise of a second vote is another exercise in vranyo, this time with the aim of stemming further defections from the party, but as before many have been happy to accept the dissimulation at face value.

Corbyn’s Brexit dilemma has not changed. To be sure, Labour could bin its traditional supporters, rebrand itself as a party of high-minded bourgeois self-interest and come out unambiguously for Remain. The price of doing so, however, could be electoral catastrophe. Though it may never be held, floating the prospect of a second vote damages Corbyn in the roughly two thirds of Labour constituencies where there was a majority for Leave. There is no safe space for Corbyn on Brexit. One can only hope he has sufficient English irony to appreciate the humour of his situation.

Contrary to what many believe, the time for a second referendum – if it ever existed – has almost certainly passed. More perceptive than its British acolytes, the Brussels high command has accepted this fact. Speaking in Berlin on 11 February, the EU’s deputy chief Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand is reported to have said: “The chances of a reversal of Brexit are non-existent. The only option is to enable a structured exit.” A so-called Final Say may only aggravate Britain’s political crisis. It would break the logjam if it delivered a result decisively different from the first. But if a second vote was rigged to rule out the option of no deal – as proposed by Keir Starmer, among others – it would effectively disenfranchise the millions who voted Leave, many of whom believe that no deal is now the only genuine Brexit on offer. A referendum that excluded a major part of the electorate would lack legitimacy, and the mismatch between representative government and plebiscitary democracy would be wider than before.

Here we reach the root of the failure of the British ruling classes. They have not grasped that the 2016 referendum changed politics irrevocably. MPs voted by an overwhelming majority to trigger Article 50. Most went on to fight a general election in which they stood on manifestos that promised to implement the referendum result. At the same time many never accepted that the referendum asked a question to which there could be more than one reasonable answer, and it was not long before they were arguing that their previous commitments were no longer relevant. But the logic of events is more powerful than any argument, and the political classes have found themselves trapped by their own history.

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Last gasp: Theresa May in Strasbourg on 11 March, claiming to have secured changes to the backstop

In attempt to unwind history lies behind the belief that swathes of “moderate” voters yearn for a party that recycles the centrist positions of two decades ago. In fact many voters favour policy mixes no “sensible” politician would entertain – renationalisation of utilities and public services alongside strong immigration controls aiming to protect workers’ wage levels and stringent measures against crime, for example. The lack of a party that blends left and right in this way is the real black hole at the centre of British politics.

TIG has had a substantial political impact in causing Corbyn’s apparent shift on a second referendum. Along with Ian Austin, who quit Labour without joining the group, it has been decisive in highlighting the normalisation of anti-Semitism in the party. TIG’s future as a political party is more doubtful. If it comes to be identified with a defunct consensus it will only confirm how little has been learned. Few are mourning the end of austerity, as Anna Soubry seemed to be suggesting in her speech at the press conference announcing the three Tory defections, when she defended the spending policies of George Osborne. What swathes of voters want is not another dose of market liberalism but active state intervention to promote individual and collective well-being.

There have been inklings of this in Blue Labour and some of the policies of Michael Gove, but few signs of any wider shift in thinking. The attempt to rehabilitate the Iraq War by Mike Gapes, who speaks for TIG on foreign policy and defence, illustrates the group’s backward-looking vision. The same tendency is shown in its attempt to reverse Brexit by way of a second referendum. Vince Cable’s decomposing Liberal Democrats are a stark warning to any party that defines itself in this way.

Much has been written on the dangers of a disorderly exit, not all of it apocalyptic scare stories. Among other immediate difficulties there would be certification problems with food and pharmaceuticals. More broadly, supply chains would be badly disrupted for some time. These difficulties could have been reduced if contingency planning had begun before the referendum, as was the case in the run-up to the 1975 vote on British membership of what was then the Common Market. But such prudence was discouraged. Like the referendum itself, Britain’s lack of preparedness is a legacy of David Cameron’s effortless mastery of events.

The medium-term impact is hard to estimate. In a hypothetical worst-case scenario, the UK could end up with levels of mass unemployment approaching those in some eurozone countries. The true dangers are political. Talk of the UK simply trading on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules is recklessly glib. With Trump in the White House the WTO may be ignored and disabled, possibly in the near future. Ultra-Brexiteers have not noticed that the rules-based international order on which they rely has become extremely fragile. In these conditions a no-deal exit would represent a catastrophic failure of government.

Many have argued that Brexit is a threat to Britain’s multinational state, with Irish reunification and a second referendum on Scottish independence becoming more likely. If anything the opposite is the case. It is difficult to envision Scottish voters risking a hard border somewhere north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. With the rest of the UK out of the EU, the question of which currency an independent Scotland would use – one of the issues that defeated the SNP in the 2014 referendum – would become more intractable. There is a definite danger of the Good Friday Agreement fraying in Ireland. But that risk would be greatest if the UK were to exit without a deal and the EU imposed a hard border. Even then there would be no near-term prospect of Irish reunification. More than from Brexit, the risk to the Union comes from slow-burning demographic changes that are producing a Catholic majority in the province.

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Reasonable doubt: JM Keynes said a “pseudo-rational view of human nature” impaired judgement

The impact of leaving without a deal would nevertheless be profoundly destabilising. The British party system would be violently reconfigured. Many take for granted the Conservatives would be out of power for a generation, but this is not at all obvious. More likely they would become a demagogic party led by Boris Johnson, a figure reminiscent of Beppe Grillo, the comedian and co-founder of Italy’s Five Star Movement, while Labour would fracture into a hard-left caucus with a rump of disoriented moderates. Varieties of populism would be the most powerful forces, while the centre would be enervated and directionless. British politics would, at last, be Europeanised.

The impact on the EU could be even greater. Retaining an independent currency and controlling its public spending, Britain could mitigate the shock through monetary expansion and aggressive fiscal stimulus. Locked into an inflexible currency union and restrictive rules on spending, eurozone countries can do neither. Almost inevitably, the march of the far right would gather speed.

It is not only a hard Brexit that could destabilise the EU. Another financial crisis could test the euro to breaking point. Uber-Remainers who seek shelter in the imagined safety of the EU are not living in the real world. In this they are like the established political classes in every Western country. There is nothing singularly British in the failure to understand the present. Screening out the continuing disintegration of the post-Cold War order is the response of liberal elites everywhere. All of them act on the assumption that the turn to authoritarianism is an anomaly, which must eventually be followed by reversion to liberal normalcy.

In fact, as John Maynard Keynes noted in his exquisite essay of memoir, “My early beliefs”, it is a liberal order that is historically anomalous. Addressing a Bloomsbury audience in 1938, he mocked the faith in human rationality that he shared with much of his generation at Cambridge in the years before the First World War. “This pseudo-rational view of human nature,” Keynes declared “led to a thinness, a superficiality, not only of judgement, but also of feeling… The attribution of rationality to human nature, instead of enriching it, now seems to me to have impoverished it.”

Keynes renounced his youthful faith in reason after watching Europe’s slide into chaos and barbarism following the botched Versailles peace conference in 1919. Securing a decent modicum of civilisation today requires an unflinchingly realist view of the deciding forces of politics, not blind faith in floundering liberal utopias.

The British political classes have made the same mistake that Keynes ridiculed in his early self. They have failed to understand some of the most powerful human needs. If a majority in Sunderland continues to support Brexit despite the threat it poses to Nissan expanding its operations in the area, the reason can only be that they are irrational and stupid. The possibility that they and millions of others value some things more than economic gain is not considered. Persistently denying respect to Leave voters in this way can only bring to Britain the dangerous populism that is steadily marching across the European continent.

Opting for a softer Brexit is a plausible scenario following the defeat of May’s withdrawal agreement on 12 March. A Norway-style relationship with the EU may well command a majority in the Commons. It may, at this point, be the most reasonable way forward. May’s withdrawal agreement was rejected because, while dealing chiefly with the terms of the divorce, it imposed draconian limits on future negotiations. Some variation on the Norway option could be more flexible. But it will not be what a majority wanted or expected when they voted to leave the EU in 2016. As a result, Britain will be fractured and weakly governed for the foreseeable future.

At the end of Keynes’s memoir the ex-rationalist compared his generation to “water-spiders, gracefully skimming, as light and reasonable as air, the surface of the stream without any contact at all with the eddies and currents beneath”. Today a new generation of water-spiders is skimming the surface, and it cannot be long before it is clear where the currents beneath are flowing. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control