We’re on the edge of an abyss and MPs are bick­er­ing

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Rafael Behr

Let the chron­i­cles of this tur­bu­lent time record how the prime min­is­ter and leader of the op­po­si­tion agreed that Bri­tain should leave the Euro­pean Union, so they ar­gued in­stead about which chan­nel should host an ar­gu­ment be­tween them. Theresa May wants to de­fend her Brexit deal on the BBC; Jeremy Cor­byn prefers to at­tack it on ITV. It is the per­fect cul­mi­na­tion of Bri­tish pol­i­tics since the ref­er­en­dum: a con­fected row over a piece of theatre to avoid a real de­bate.

Par­lia­ment starts hear­ing ar­gu­ments over May’s plan to­day. This should be the fi­nal as­cent, the peak of a demo­cratic process, but the climb has been a map­less scram­ble through fog. The view from the sum­mit will not be much clearer than it was in the foothills, when no one had a clue how to un­tan­gle EU mem­ber­ship, and only char­la­tans and fools said it would be easy.

To ex­pect lu­cid­ity from May is to ig­nore her record. This is the prime min­is­ter who coined “Brexit means Brexit” – a slo­gan so exquisitely vac­u­ous it might be con­cep­tual art. She knows no strat­egy be­yond se­crecy and the dead bat. Like­wise, there is no ev­i­dence that Cor­byn can bring pub­lic in­sight to a Euro­pean dilemma. Last week, he was on break­fast tele­vi­sion say­ing that Labour would have time to ar­range a new Brexit deal in “a tran­si­tion pe­riod which has al­ready been now agreed”. But tran­si­tion has been agreed as a con­di­tion of the deal Cor­byn aims to de­stroy. What he said was ei­ther cyn­i­cally mis­lead­ing or fright­en­ingly ill-in­formed.

Both would be con­sis­tent with the pat­tern of pol­i­tics since 2016. The ref­er­en­dum did lit­tle to in­form or el­e­vate na­tional de­bate on all things Euro­pean. On bal­ance, the leave cam­paign was the more du­plic­i­tous of the two sides, but that is no re­flec­tion on the mo­tive or char­ac­ter of leave vot­ers. Ig­no­rance of the EU was rife among re­main­ers too. Pretty much ev­ery­one fol­lowed their gut; no one was pon­der­ing phy­tosan­i­tary inspections at busy ports. There was lit­tle grasp, on ei­ther side, of the strate­gic mag­ni­tude of what was be­ing pro­posed – not just the up­root­ing and re­plant­ing of the econ­omy, but frac­tur­ing the po­lit­i­cal al­liance that has un­der­pinned Bri­tish for­eign pol­icy for a gen­er­a­tion.

We con­spired to hold a ref­er­en­dum on leav­ing the EU with­out a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion about what the EU does. Then, a year later, we got through a gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign with lit­tle men­tion of Europe at all. Another year has passed and, de­spite the ur­gency of the ar­ti­cle 50 clock run­ning out, pol­i­tics still man­ages to dis­tract it­self with ar­gu­ments other than the only one worth hav­ing, which is this: given what we now know about Brexit that we didn’t know then, should we still do it?

That is not the ques­tion on which May and Cor­byn would dwell in a tele­vised de­bate. It isn’t a ques­tion that trou­bles hard­line Tory back­benchers run­ning up and down West­min­ster cor­ri­dors in pursuit of let­ters of no con­fi­dence in their leader. It isn’t a ques­tion that can be an­swered by pub­li­ca­tion of the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s le­gal ad­vice on the with­drawal agree­ment. That isn’t to say these things are unim­por­tant. It mat­ters if Ge­of­frey Cox QC ad­vises that the Ir­ish “back­stop” is a trap­door to per­pet­ual reg­u­la­tory sub­or­di­na­tion. But it mat­ters only as con­fir­ma­tion of a struc­tural down­side to Brexit that we know al­ready – the im­bal­ance of power be­tween a bloc of 27 states and one quit­ter.

There is no ob­scure par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure or elegantly crafted amend­ment that changes the cost­ben­e­fit equa­tion. May’s Brexit isn’t uniquely, freak­ishly dele­te­ri­ous to the na­tional in­ter­est. It is just Brexit. If that’s what MPs want, they should vote for it. Ei­ther the price is worth pay­ing, for what­ever rea­son – a trade deal with Don­ald Trump, fewer Ro­ma­ni­ans on the bus, blue pass­ports – or it isn’t.

But I sus­pect we haven’t fin­ished with dis­place­ment ac­tiv­ity. There are still a few im­plau­si­ble 11th-hour rene­go­ti­a­tions to be de­manded. Labour can still call for a gen­eral elec­tion, with­out say­ing what the Brexit chap­ter in their man­i­festo would con­tain. The Tories might squeeze in a lead­er­ship con­test. Boris John­son is still at large. It is tempt­ing to de­cry an ex­cess of game-play­ing in Bri­tish pub­lic life, but that doesn’t do jus­tice to the de­base­ment. A bit of sport­ing mis­chief is a nor­mal as­pect of pol­i­tics. Some­times the play gets a bit dirty; some­times we all take our eye off the ball. But in the cur­rent cli­mate it feels as if the pitch it­self and the goals have been for­got­ten al­to­gether. Pol­i­tics has be­come end­less fight­ing in the stands, while sen­si­ble peo­ple flee the sta­dium.

I can see why this spec­ta­cle puts peo­ple off another ref­er­en­dum. Not much about the past few years prom­ises a fes­ti­val of rea­soned di­a­logue. But I also want to re­sist such fa­tal­ism. When politi­cians say that another vote would be di­vi­sive and bit­ter, they are wrig­gling out from re­spon­si­bil­ity to raise the tone them­selves. They mean they can­not imag­ine do­ing pol­i­tics dif­fer­ently. Ac­tu­ally, it isn’t a warn­ing but a threat: pro­ceed with Brexit or we will de­grade your pub­lic dis­course even fur­ther. Sub­mis­sion to that men­ace is not a good rea­son to leave the EU, it just adds to the list of bad ones.

Maybe it is fan­ci­ful to imag­ine a dif­fer­ent kind of cam­paign, one that would re­ha­bil­i­tate re­spon­si­ble po­lit­i­cal de­bate. In more op­ti­mistic mo­ments, I hope there is one more chap­ter in the Brexit chron­i­cle, writ­ten in a style more be­fit­ting the se­ri­ous­ness of the ques­tion. Oth­er­wise what is the story be­ing told about our democ­racy? We bick­ered for years on the edge of an abyss, then dropped wearily in be­cause we could no longer trust our­selves to dis­cuss the merit in jump­ing.

At the 11th hour the pitch and the goals have been for­got­ten and pol­i­tics has be­come end­less fight­ing in the stands


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