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For many months now there has been a widespread expectation that, at some point or another, British politics would make a “reversion to the norm”. Think of this as the opposite of the term “backsliding”, in which fledgling democracies are said to be in danger of a deterioration to a state of anarchy or authoritarianism. With Brexit over, British politics could find a new maturity with the farrago settled. The state of our public services, our justice system, and the shape of the British economy would be put centre stage.
That was a common assumption. The Labour leadership used its party conference last year to trail a series of radical policy recommendations on employee share ownership, homelessness and nationalisation. Smart move, I thought – a withdrawal agreement would get through parliament this year, and arguments over the minutiae of trade or the jurisdiction of the ECJ were likely to recede into the background.
I was wrong, but still, in January and February, I priced in a “reversion to the norm”. The Withdrawal Agreement would surely pass at second or even the third time of asking. Tory Brexiteer backbenchers (and the DUP) were “looking for a ladder to climb down”, plenty of distinguished commentators claimed.
It’s a seductive form of reasoning because it affects to give solidity to mere wind, the incoherent plea for Brexit to “just go away” and for all concerned to beat their swords into ploughshares at last. I understand why, for those who voted Remain but felt it necessary to honour the referendum result (and I would bet a significant proportion of the London media fall into that camp), Brexit continues to present itself like that.
But with Boris Johnson’s “do or die” mantra, there is less scope for self-deception.
A no deal exit by November 1st will not only inject a massive level of instability into an already parlous and mangled constitutional settlement, energising calls for secession in Northern Ireland and Scotland, it will give the Leave/Remain divide a new and dangerous edge. On the Leave side because there is no trade deal with Europe that will not involve trade-offs of some description, even if they are encoded in so-called “mini deals” or through an FTA. And on the Remain side because the Brexit debate is a totemic feature of the direction of travel for politics for many below the age of 40, where frantic, highly personalised and vicious debates over cultural identity loom large.
So no, sorry. “Do or die” will not allow British politics to leach the poison that began to course through the body politic after the 2016 referendum. Rather we will find the public sphere further impoverished, taken over wholesale by Brexit, our civil conflict, a form of warfare in which there can be no real triumphs and no final victory since it was by our own hand that we felt the first blow.
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