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What do we mean by Brexit and what kind of a Brexit do we want? From the dawn of the day following the referendum in June 2016, when Britain’s departure from the European Union moved from being an improbable hope to the policy of the nation, these two questions have bedevilled political debate. No two people, inside or outside of the Westminster bubble, can agree with precision on what the referendum means or what we want from it.
Those that campaigned hardest for Brexit have failed to produce a credible plan for the exit, and in failing to produce a plan they have failed to unite a divided nation to rally to their cause. Those who campaigned hardest for the United Kingdom to stay as a member of the European Union have struggled to move on from their disbelief that they lost and have not provided a workable solution on how to proceed either.
In the ensuing political morass the atmosphere has grown vituperative, within and between the main political parties. This has exacerbated despair and disillusionment with Westminster politics. We hear frequently from a noisy few Member of Parliament on either end of the divide and very little from the majority of parliamentarians who, either from wisdom or fear (or probably a healthy mixture of both), prefer to keep their heads down on this subject.
Brexit may be a huge success or it maybe a huge disaster. But no-one can, with any truthfulness, say either way because there is no evidence of any kind that confidently points in one direction or another. All that we do know is that we are undergoing a huge national upheaval.
In the middle of this maelstrom sits the Prime Minister, Theresa May. To her falls the responsibility of trying to fashion a way forward. This she has been doggedly doing since taking office.
The dogged pursuit of any policy is never one that excites the pundits or galvanises the activists and Mrs May has been subjected to her fair share of abuse and criticism. In the next few weeks however we will see the fruits of this labour. A working agreement is closer to being settled than is being publicly admitted. The pieces of the political and diplomatic jigsaw are being put into place. In Downing Street, in the corridors of Parliament and in bars and restaurants across Westminster hectic discussions are being had and compromises made. Soon the Prime Minister will come to the House of Commons, outline her proposal and ask for support.
This is as it should be. It was Members of Parliament who approved the Brexit referendum. It was MPs who voted to trigger Article 50 – the request to leave. It must be MPs who approve – or do not – the Prime Minister’s plan. This is how it should be.
But whatever the outcome, Brexit is churning through national politics like a rotavator ploughing up a field. It is not easy to think of one Westminster politician, on any side of the Brexit debate, whose career has been enhanced by it.
In Scotland it might give Nicola Sturgeon the excuse she needs for a second independence referendum, but it is far from clear she would succeed if she did.
For everyone, for the main political parties, Brexit has done little but cause damage and disruption. It is a similar story outside of Westminster – across business, charities, community groups, in cities, towns and villages, between generations and among family members – Brexit has sown seeds of division and acrimony.
When it is all over, the most urgent domestic task facing Britain will be locating leadership that can provide the vision to unify a deeply divided nation…