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If the European election results have shown us anything, it is that Britain is hideously divided. Those political parties that offered a clear message on Brexit – be that leaving without a deal (Brexit Party) or remaining (the Lib Dems) – prospered. The two main parties meanwhile which sought to find compromise on the issue suffered some of their worst results in living memory. In the case of the Conservatives, it was the party’s worst result since 1832.
So perhaps it is worth contemplating why Brexit has become such a divisive issue. How did a debate about Britain’s trading relations with our most immediate neighbours become so polarising? How did the question of whether or not we participate in a particular set of political arrangements with our European allies become so existential?
The reason, I contend, is that Brexit has become a repository for antithetical ideas about sovereignty, democracy and accountability. These ideas cut right to the heart of our political and philosophical world views, and they cut directly across traditional party lines which until now have been drawn principally to distinguish between economic rationales.
Discussions around the appropriate levels of taxation, spending and redistribution, however, have now become utterly subordinate to where one stands on the spectrum of national sovereignty versus international cooperation, direct versus indirect democracy, and on national versus international identity.
For the majority of leavers, the nation state is a moral good. Countries are tried and tested structures which have for hundreds of years facilitated the sharing of rights and responsibilities between citizens. They have not been imposed, but have grown organically between peoples with similar cultural outlooks and common historic reference points.
For people who feel this way, sovereignty can never be pooled between nations. Yes states can work together for the common good, and yes, some issues can only be tackled by working together. But ultimately, sovereignty can only ever extend as far as the nation. Democracy doesn’t work when the link between politicians and the voters they represent is stretched too far, or when national borders come to include large groups of individuals with radically different cultural characteristics. We begin to lose touch with what makes us distinct as a people, and with what makes our country feel like home.
Those who subscribe to such ideas feel suppressed rather than empowered by distant elites making decisions on their behalf. They feel a disconnect between themselves and the majority in positions of power who have long since abandoned identities anchored in place and nation. Promises to “take back control” will therefore resonate much more deeply than dry economic arguments put forward by stern sounding think-tanks using questionable assumptions which purport to show that we would be financially better-off remaining in the EU.
For many remainers meanwhile, a completely different set of moral conclusions has been reached. While states are understood to have useful administrative qualities, they are essentially historical quirks that have no real moral force. Nations throughout history have been shown to fight each other, breed rivalries, foster nationalism, and have hindered international cooperation. Therefore the further we can travel in the direction of political integration and cultural homogeneity, the better for global peace and prosperity.
Although remainers recognise democracy as an essential part of good governance, it does not need to be direct. Indeed, direct democracy, such as the use of referendums, can often be dangerous as they necessarily require crude black and white answers to often complex questions. This can give space to populists to advocate simplistic solutions which frequently play to base human instincts.
Sovereignty therefore can and should be pooled through international institutions for our own benefit. These arguments are therefore understood by their proponents to be rational as well as moral in nature. While cooperation means we do not always get everything we want in any internationally negotiated settlement, ultimately, we are all made better off by dissolving economic and cultural barriers and working together for the common good.
These are huge philosophical differences that completely dissect traditional party values. And they are not likely to dissipate any time soon. Indeed, the electorate has shown itself utterly unwilling to compromise on these matters of core esoteric principle. If the two main parties are to survive, they will have to adapt to this new reality. The time for concession making has past. It’s time for each of them to pick a side.