The centre ground is collapsing

British politics is in deadlock, with two extremes increasingly dominant. These extremes are a militant, conservative nationalism and an increasingly aggressive assertion of liberal values. The main battleground is Brexit, but it is by no means the only one. The centre ground, which seeks a compromise that the country as a whole can live with is imploding.

Thus we have a paradox. Most MPs want Britain to implement the 2016 referendum result and take Britain out of the European Union. And yet they have been unable to do it, and the possibility that Britain will never leave is now growing. That is because the militant nationalists insist on a radical interpretation of Brexit, and are prepared to block compromise. This is having two effects. First it has deadlocked the House of Commons and prevented the government from passing an exit deal. The second is that it is provoking Remainers into increasing militancy themselves, since to them such a radical interpretation is a clear violation of the referendum result, which after all was a narrow one.

The leaderships of both main parties are holding crumbling middle ground, which seeks an orderly exit from the EU, and a reasonably smooth economic relationship with it, and, in particular, an open but functional land border between the EU and the UK in Ireland.

How did we get here? In June 2016 the referendum gave a narrow but clear majority for Britain to leave. About a third of the country were delighted, another third wished the result could somehow be made to go away, and the remaining third accepted that the country needed to leave, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The mandate to the government and parliament was clear. All but a handful of Conservative MPs accepted the referendum result, and most Labour ones did too. As Theresa May took over the helm as Prime Minister she interpreted this as proceeding with as close a relationship with the EU as practical subject to three red lines: control over migration, no financial contributions and no jurisdiction of the European Court. This was a pretty fair interpretation of the referendum result, where migration and the financial contributions were key issues, as was sovereignty. A fourth red line soon crept in however: no customs union with the EU. The mandate for this was not a clear one, but many Tories considered that the ability of the country to negotiate tariffs with other countries to be critical. That is where things started to go wrong.

But even with these clear red lines, it was apparent that any deal with the EU would be messy and involve compromise: Britain’s bargaining position was a weak one. Notwithstanding this Mrs May gave the EU the two year notice required under Article 50 of the EU constitution in March 2017. She has been much criticised for this, but it did make sense. A later date meant that we would have been tangled in elections to the European Parliament, and after that the handover to a new Commission. Then Mrs May had a brainwave. If she called a General Election, she could establish a clear majority in parliament and that would give her the leverage to push the whole messy business through. Again, this was not an error. She badly needed a big majority, and also to stamp her authority on the party. The polls were very favourable.

Then disaster struck. Instead of leaving nothing to chance in the election, in the way of Tony Blair, and focusing her pitch exactly on Brexit, she let her close adviser, Nick Timothy, put together a hubristic manifesto that pushed into all sorts of other areas, notably funding social care for the elderly. She also listened too closely to the advisers who told her to keep her distance from the debate, and especially not to allow herself be exposed to a televised leaders’ debate. This was an understandable mistake because her public performances were dire. But it reinforced public doubts about her. It all unravelled and she ended up in a minority depending on Ulster’s DUP. She should probably have bowed out then and there. But she carried tuck on doggedly, and her party let her.

The big problem turned out to be the intra-Irish border with Northern Ireland. The Irish government insisted that the border remain an open one: but that implied that Northern Ireland at least would be part of a customs union with the EU, if not the Single Market. Mrs May (and others in her government) underestimated this. She was desperate to close the Withdrawal Agreement quickly, and so she allowed wording in this that implied either the UK as a whole or Northern Ireland would stay tethered to the EU Single Market in some shape or form, until somehow some other arrangement could be made that kept the border open. And this would be baked into an international treaty that a future parliament would find it hard to get out of. This issue than split her own party and alienated the DUP. The other parties were not going to help her out. Meanwhile the Irish government has stuck to a very hard line, notwithstanding the risk of a no-deal.

And so the impasse. We are still in the EU long after the 29 March departure date, and facing those European Parliament elections. The best hope of exit is through a deal between the Conservative and Labour parties to agree on some form of compromise. Talks are under way, but both leaders are being urged to abandon them. This is partly because of entrenched views on Brexit, on the one side insisting that there can be no customs union, and on the other that there must be a further referendum. It is also because there is polarisation beyond Brexit along more traditional left and right lines. This is where both parties want to fight the next general election, and they are keen to paint the other side as muddled extremists.

With the main parties deadlocked, the initiative is moving elsewhere. Most spectacular is the new Brexit Party, led by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. This is running to a highly nationalist script, stirring up anger over the alleged betrayal by the metropolitan elite. It is copying much of its playbook from Donald Trump. Mr Farage has a ready audience, and is playing to packed out and enthusiastic public meetings. This is a message of pure anger; there is no suggestion of any constructive path out of the mess the country finds itself in. But many formerly resigned and politically inactive people tasted political success in the referendum, and they are not ready to give it up. Probably as much as a quarter of the electorate are supporters, with many more willing to vote for it as a protest in European elections.

Other parties are becoming more militant too. Most successful of these is the Liberal Democrats. This party has often flirted with the centre ground, and often practices centrist government locally – but on the national stage they have become militant Remainers. The Greens too are doing well, combining their environmental militancy with a European one (not so long a go I remember them having a very large Eurosceptic faction – which shows how times are changing). Change UK, the new party made of defectors from both Labour and Conservative, is muddled about whether it is centrist or extremist, and is losing momentum as a result. In Scotland and Wales local nationalists are seizing the opportunity in their own particular way, with a combination of their own nationalism and Remainer militancy.

Meanwhile Conservatives and Labour are losing control. Both have succeeded through being coalitions of different interests, and so have had a natural tendency to be centrist – long seen as essential to winning power. But increasingly their activists are losing sight of that and wanting to join the polarising tide.

Where will this end? The two most likely outcomes are a no-deal Brexit (probably in October this year), or a further referendum which ends up stopping Brexit altogether. Each would be a victory for one of the extremes. Both would leave a legacy of bitterness that will take a generation or more to heal. Perhaps that is something our country has to go through before it reconciles itself to its new fate, whatever that is.

One thought on “The centre ground is collapsing”

  1. “That is because the militant nationalists insist on a radical interpretation of Brexit”

    It’s true that some do. I wouldn’t accept that description of myself but I couldn’t possibly support the “Withdrawal Agreement” as it stands. There’s a lot wrong with besides the major sticking point of the Irish border. There’s no provision for ending the agreement, say with a period of notice, as there would be for a normal agreement between two parties. A sensible agreement could have included a customs union for a limited period which was revokable by either side. To that extent, the Withdrawal Non-Agreement is much worse than continued EU membership. It wouldn’t be so much an agreement as a new EU treaty. And a one sided treaty at that.

    I can’t imagine why the two sides spent so much time negotiating it without some attempt to assess the likely chances of it getting through the UK Parliament. Anyone who was even slightly familiar with the UK Parliamentary system could have advised correctly on what was going to happen.

    It is easy to be ultra cynical about all this, and say the present situation was deliberately engineered to force a choice between revoking Art50 and leaving with no deal. Either that or both sets of negotiators were hopelessly incompetent.

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