The United Kingdom has the right, like other member states, to leave the European Union. A means is set out in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, and others are arguably available too. Since that right is available, exercising it should be uncontroversial – especially since the decision to Brexit was made by the biggest popular vote in British electoral history. But it has not turned out to be so. Why?
There are a mass of reasons. Leave’s margin of victory was narrow – although most voters initially swung behind the decision, and very many continue to ask: why can’t the politicians just get on with it? MPs split Remain-Leave by perhaps five to one. This always had the potential to disrupt Brexit, and so it is proving now. Departure was handled at the top of government by both Remainers and Leavers, and the muddle of aims and aspirations weakened policy-making and negotiation, perhaps fatally. Leavers themselves do not all agree on the way forward: some hanker for EEA membership; others would actually welcome No Deal; most are somewhere in the middle, wanting a free trade agreement. Above all, Theresa May lost her negotiating clout when she bungled last year’s election, and returned from it more at the mercy of the Commons than ever.
The civil service and state institutions are sensitive to political authority. They didn’t swing fully behind Margaret Thatcher until after her landslide victory in 1983, and their identification with Tony Blair was exposed by the Iraq War inquiries. Very many civil servants have worked extremely hard to help deliver Brexit. But there can be little doubt that some at the top share the scepticism of Nick Macpherson, the former Treasury Permanent Secretary, or the hostility of Simon Fraser, his equivalent at the Foreign Office. The views of both are available to readers on Twitter. In parts of the City, among the bigger businesses, at the top of most unions, in the media (with a lot of exceptions), in the law (with fewer), and among the universities and the lobbyocracy there is sustained antipathy to Brexit. This agglomeration controls the commanding heights of our culture.
If not exactly an elite, it is certainly an ascendancy – or has been. Its take on EU membership has been that of government and state policy for over 50 years, and the popular decision to leave dealt a deep wound to its sense of status, self-worth and entitlement. “The most striking and disturbing development since the 2016 referendum has been the emergence of what can without much exaggeration be termed a Remainer revolt,” Robert Tombs has written. Its arguments, he added, “have rarely if ever been heard in any advanced country since the nineteenth century. For example: that most voters did not know what they were voting for; that working-class voters were too ignorant to make a choice; that people without advanced education should have their political rights reduced; that older people should have no right to an equal democratic voice.”
One should keep a sense of proportion. As we suggested earlier, most people are fed up with the Brexit debate – turned off and tuned out. But for a substantial minority it has an explosive power more commonly associated with political rifts outside this country: the Dreyfus Affair in France comes to mind. Very broadly, the M25 belt leans one way and the rest of England the other; Scotland and Wales went in different directions in 2016; Northern Ireland is in the eye of the storm; there is class and age division (and some important ethnic differences). An MP was murdered on the brink of the 2016 vote. With the Prime Minister’s deal apparently becalmed, the options of No Deal and No Brexit loom – upping the rhetorical stakes, busting Cabinet unity, bending the main political parties and pointing towards constitutional unknowns. There is displacement activity. How else can describe the row over whether or not one politician called another a “stupid woman”?
This Christmas offers only a very brief break from Brexit. Even if May’s deal clears Parliament – which looks very unlikely – the great drama will roll on, as the EU seeks to trade off access for its citizens (and to our fish) against access to its markets. But it is worth asking what people or institutions have the power to bring reconciliation, calm and perspective, however temporarily. The Queen is one – maybe less through the accumulated command of the monarchy, weighty though that is, than through her record of service and her own virtues. The parades and silences of November 11 are another. They carried a special weight on this hundredth anniversary of 1918.
Christmas is the last Christian festival with the same reach and universality. Most people in Britain are not practicising Christians – and other faiths plus atheism are on the rise – but their background is a broadly Christian one. Whitsun long ago vanished into a bank holiday. Easter is a pause on the journey to summer. Neither are particularly accessible. The Holy Ghost seems, well, ghostly. And though the idea of resurrection has an intuitive power, it is beyond imagination. By contrast, Christmas offers something concrete – the birth of a child. Most people can get on its wavelength.
“‘Fear not,’ the old carol has it, ‘for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind’.” For many individuals and families, the season has its downs as well as its ups. All the same, this may be a Christmas with even more than the usual share of troubled minds. Unlike the angel, ConservativeHome is not qualified to redress the balance by announcing tidings of great joy. But it may console our readers to know that we will pause publication for only two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The site will be back on December 27. We will say our temporary farewell on Monday.