British politicians are divided into Realists and Romantics. So wrote William Hague in a magisterial piece for yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, which repeated the classic distinction in 1066 And All That between “the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive)”.
We find ourselves with a government of Roundheads. The only Cavalier in the Cabinet is Michael Gove, but he with quixotic chivalry has placed his sword at the service of Theresa May.
Hague’s pen is likewise at her service, and so is the greater part of the Establishment, whose defeatist assumptions, presented as the higher realism, are all the more admirable, in the eyes of their adherents, for making no concession to popular feeling.
Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg stand outside that consensus. No leader writer on The Financial Times sits down and concedes they might have a point.
But they do have a point, which the dreary, self-righteous, character-assassinating members of our ruling class are incapable of seeing.
The life of nations, as of individuals, is lived largely in the imagination. The idea we have of ourselves has practical consequences.
So the concept of sovereignty, though an abstract idea about the resting place of ultimate authority, is not just an abstraction.
The Leave campaign was astute enough to speak not of sovereignty, but of taking back control of our laws, taxes and borders, and Remainers had no adequate answer to this. For here is a democratic aspiration: that there should be no taxation without representation, which in turn means the people who elect their representatives should be able to define the limits of who they are, by deciding who becomes a citizen.
The absolutism of this doctrine is repellent to the liberal mind. And speaking for myself, I confess I am a wishy-washy liberal, who is delighted if the state is unable to enforce a complete control over immigration, which would exclude many admirable people who pay us the compliment of wanting to come and live in our free and prosperous country.
But the vote for Brexit occurred in part because voters think there should be tighter control of immigration than has recently been the case. There is general agreement that if Tony Blair’s government had been more restrictive on this question, or if David Cameron had persuaded the European Union to agree to tighter controls, the referendum, if needed at all, would have gone the other way.
So here is a question on which Theresa May, if she wishes to prolong her prime ministership, needs to be more restrictive than either Blair or Cameron. And until recently, she seemed to recognise this, by holding out in favour of stricter controls than liberal opinion was willing to countenance.
That tough approach is now in danger of being subordinated to her desire to reach agreement with the EU. Her Realism (in Hague’s terms) about frictionless trade may already have led her to abandon the Romantic project of controlling our borders.
If that is so, she and the Realists who agree with her find themselves in danger of being accused of the most monstrous bad faith. Why, people will ask, was the referendum held, if the only Realistic answer was to vote to stay in the EU? Was the entire exercise bogus? A deception? An artifice? A trick?
This is why the attacks on Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg for being Romantics, who are not prepared to accept that a hard Brexit is impossible, are not the end of the matter. If that claim is correct, the whole referendum was a fraud.
The truth is that Brexit, though it presents difficulties, is not impossible. Until 1972, we existed as a nation state outside the EU, and it stands to reason that we can do so again, if only we are determined to do so.
So Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg are not so irrelevant as Hague, in his brilliant article, seeks to demonstrate. They are instead seeking, unlike the greater part of the Establishment, to honour the referendum result.
I write this not as some purblind Brexiteer, but as someone who, having acknowledged there were strong arguments on both sides of the question, ended up voting Remain. But it seems to me a recipe for disaster to deny that the result went the other way.
The greatest objection to the EU is that it is undemocratic. Is it unwilling to accept, on equitable terms, the democratically expressed desire of one of its members to leave? Is it a voluntary association, or a prison?
As I write these words, I feel myself growing hot under the collar. Much now depends on the reception of the Chequers proposals in Brussels. The feeling could easily grow – is indeed already growing among those who voted Brexit – that May and her remaining colleagues have been too ready to accept the unfounded claim by Brussels to superior legitimacy, giving it the right to enforce unequal trading arrangements.
Might is right? Is that the core of the Realist argument? If so, it is not one well chosen to appeal to freeborn people. Much scorn has been poured on Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg, and no doubt they possess, like all human beings, their weaknesses. But they are not so irrelevant as Hague, grown accustomed to seeing things from a ministerial point of view, would like to persuade us.