Professor Simon Usherwood on why there is still most of Brexit to come, in both process and effect.
First published in September 2019.
As you’d probably expect – given my assorted responsibilities – I’ve managed to be out of the UK for most of the past fortnight.
Sure, I’ve been talking about Brexit for all that time, but being away from the maelstrom does change things somewhat (and not just because I get to turn down opportunities to be on College Green at early o’clock).
One of the things it has offered has been a chance to step back and think about ‘Brexit’ in the round.
I wrote this time last year about this on Twitter:
What has changed since then? Well, two things stand out for me.
The first is that the levels of trust have decreased sharply in the past year. That includes trust between Parliament and government; within parties, and; in the public towards politicians and politics.
The blockage on whether to accept the Withdrawal Agreement has paralysed British politics for many months, with no obvious pathway to any one of the three possible outcomes of it all: leaving with a deal, leaving without one or not leaving at all.
Low trust makes it much harder for any one political actor to act, because they cannot have a reasonable level of confidence that others will comply with decisions or obligations. This week’s entry into force of the legislation obliging the government to ask for an extension if no-deal is secured by mid-October is one manifestation of this, as is the government’s equivocation about following that legislation.
And low trust breeds low trust. If you’re going to mess about then I feel justified in messing about too, even if that ends up excusing the original action. Trust is quick to weaken, but very slow to return.
And this contributes to a second factor: the dominant mode is blame-avoidance, rather than problem-solving.
There appears to be no significant actor in the UK that is clearly working towards finding common ground or building a coalition for an outcome (and the opposition parties in Parliament don’t count, because avoiding no-deal isn’t an outcome, but a delay).
That the launch of a small cross-party grouping of MPs looking to get the Withdrawal Agreement approved got as little attention as it did is instructive here.
Instead, the general air of trying to position opponents into the role of the baddie: ‘they blocked us’ or ‘they forced us’. If you believe the Cummings super-mind model, then all of the past fortnight has been about building up a ‘people versus Parliament/courts’ election on precisely this model.
(I don’t, by the way: even if it were the plan, the general field of politics isn’t like a campaign, with far too many moving parts and uncertainties. At the very least, someone would be making sure Johnson gets to bed earlier, so he can get out and about with more pep.)
This is mainly a British thing, but the EU has also been careful not to fall into a trap of being the ones to call time on Article 50: the Johnson meetings with Merkel and Macron ahead of the G7 last month resulted in statements that underlined it was for the UK to rock up with new ideas on the WA, not the EU.
And where does this leave us?
Largely, it leaves us stuck. Even if the various factions did have some trust in others to play along, no-one feels like giving ground, because they continue to see everyone else as weak.
The upshot is that much of ‘Brexit’ is still to be realised.
We are barely at the end of the first, simpler stage of the process: ending EU membership. We have scarcely scratched the surface of the question of what comes next in EU-UK relations, or of the future of the UK as a polity and society.
At the different events I’ve been at of late, a recurring theme has been exactly that of the pre-conditions for a major change to the UK being in place, but not yet being fully realised. That’s most evident in the party political system, but also in the broader social and political debate. If you’re feeling edgy, then look to major constitutional change being primed almost as I write/you read.
All, some or none of it could happen, but until a way through the current blockage is found, we won’t know. Maybe a general election will provide that, although I remain very dubious that it would produce a one-party majority for a party that is convinced it knows what it wants to do.
Maybe the bigger lesson to take from this potentiality is that there is still much to struggle for, whatever your preference. As I like to tell the kids: if you don’t make choices for yourself, then others will do it for you, and they probably won’t be so interested in what you want.🔷
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