British Politics

The Perils of Winning

July 01, 2016

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The Perils of Winning

“The whole worl’ is in a state o’ chassis,” says a character in a Sean O’Casey play. By “chassis” he meant “chaos,” but “chassis,” though a malapropism, is more expressive, and seems right. This is one response to Brexit. It’s creating “chassis,” and the future is as clear as a mountain landscape seen through a Scotch mist or an old-fashioned London fog.

Brexit is, of course, only one element of the “chassis,” even a latecomer to the party. The rise of Donald Trump was a precursor. A year ago all the wise men and women—and the bookies, who are, in this respect, wiser or at least cannier than most of them—would have given you generous odds against Trump winning the Republican nomination. Anyone who took such odds is smiling now, and only a fool would bet confidently against him winning the presidential election in November. It may seem absurd that the leader of a revolt against the elites should be a billionaire who has made his fortune in real estate deals, but in a world in a state of “chassis,” it’s the previously absurd that makes sense.

In Britain the people have spoken—“Damn them,” some of us Remainers may add. But that’s how it is. The verdict has been delivered and must be respected. Talk of a second referendum is pointless; that cock won’t fight. Likewise the suggestion that the House of Commons might vote to reject the decision. True, it has the numbers to do so; true, also, that, in strict legality, this referendum is only advisory. This is indeed the constitutional position; it is Parliament—more exactly, Crown-in-Parliament—that is sovereign. Nevertheless, anyone of sense recognizes that for Parliament to defy the will of the majority as expressed in the referendum would be an act of utter folly. The Brexit campaign has tapped into discontent that will not be easily satisfied. In 1789, learning of the Fall of the Bastille, Louis XVI said, “But this is a revolt.” “No, Your Majesty,” he was told, “it’s a revolution.” It’s the response of governments that determines whether a revolt becomes a revolution.

“The serious long-term problem is this: The two wings of the Leave movement are incompatible.”

So there has to be a Brexit government. Nothing else will serve. Its immediate problem will be how to negotiate the terms of the United Kingdom’s departure from the E.U. This will be a long and difficult process, so difficult indeed that it seems that the leading Brexiteers are in no hurry to set it in motion. There’s no need, they say, immediately to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which sets out the procedure for a member state wishing to leave the E.U. Their wish to delay is understandable, though it won’t please their more ardent supporters. The trouble is that it doesn’t please many, perhaps most, of the leaders of the other E.U. states. Their view is that they didn’t want the U.K. to opt for Leave, but now that it has done so, it’s best that it goes as quickly as possible for fear that the U.K. vote may prove infectious, and other dominos fall.

For the moment at least, Angela Merkel, the most important and most sensible of Europe’s leaders, is sympathetic and understanding, saying there is “no need to be nasty” to Britain. Yet she also insists there can be no informal talks—that’s to say, no talks at all—until Article 50 is activated. Fair enough, but delay is what Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove seem to want. Johnson aims to be Cameron’s successor as Tory leader and prime minister. Taking the heat out of the E.U. issue by playing for time and suggesting that “it will be all right on the night” is in his personal interest.

The Brexiteers have another long-term problem. They may have the support of a majority of those who, a year ago, voted Tory at the general election, though it’s likely that some who voted Tory then will now defect (or return) to the Liberal Democrats, but the serious long-term problem is this: The two wings of the Leave movement are incompatible.

On the one hand, you have the Tories who are mostly free marketeers and speak enthusiastically of a Britain open to the world. A Britain open to the world is also, logically, a Britain open to immigration from all parts of the world. These Tories—and UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell (himself formerly a Tory)—would doubtless wish to exercise more control over both the level of immigration and the categories of immigrants to be admitted, but they certainly wouldn’t be putting up a sign reading “No immigrants welcome.”

On the other hand, immigration was the big issue in the referendum. It was opposition to immigration—dislike, even hatred, of immigrants—that had so many in the old working-class communities in the North of England and the Midlands flocking in their millions to vote Leave. Many of them had already deserted the Labour Party, their traditional home, to vote UKIP in last year’s general election.

So there is a sharp division among those who voted for Brexit. If the Tory leaders of the Leave campaign have a vision of Britain as an open, free-trading neocapitalist economy, the Old Labour Leavers want to pull up the drawbridge, and many of them would like to see immigrants sent home to Poland or Pakistan or wherever. Both sides can’t be satisfied.

It’s the nature of a referendum to make for such uneasy and unsustainable alliances. In Scotland in 1999 we had a referendum on the Labour government’s plan for devolution, establishing a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Labour recommended this as the way to make for “the better governance of Scotland and the United Kingdom.” The Scottish National Party supported it as a first step toward independence and the end of the union with England. The two parties campaigned side by side. As I wrote then, in numerous newspaper articles, “they can’t both be right.” Well, independence hasn’t arrived yet, but we have had an SNP government in office since 2007, and Labour’s decades-old hegemony has crumbled.


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