There is an excellent article by Neal Ascherson in the current issue of The London Review of Books (17 November 2016) which chimes with some of the ideas I started to put down in my last post here. “England prepares to leave the world” (such an apposite title) reminds me of something I’ve been thinking, in a rather inchoate way, over the last few months: all of the current shenanigans over Brexit are the result of weakness, not strength. The government is weak, and all of the political parties in Britain are weak, and everything that is happening in British politics at the moment is the result of a desperate effort to hold on rather than anything serious, thought-through and controlled.
Policy is being made up on the hoof, because the weakness of the government position allows no leeway for care and planning. But opposition to that policy is equally hit and miss, because the weakness of the opposition parties gives them no opportunity to construct a coherent approach.
Let’s start with the government. The most obvious thing to note is that their majority in parliament is wafer thin. (In fact it just got thinner, with the resignation of two MPs, one over Brexit and one over Heathrow. One of those seats will safely return to the Conservatives at the by-election; the other is not quite so safe, it has been a LibDem seat before, and if the opposition parties united, as there has been talk of them doing, it could be again. But, of course, they won’t unite, so Zac Goldsmith will almost certainly be returned as an Independent, and then instantly be absorbed back into the Tory party. Still, until those by-elections happen, the government is two votes down.)
The government is therefore faced with the task of steering major and controversial issues through parliament without the security of a strong majority. Usually this would be an occasion for concessions, conciliation, negotiations, persuasion, and reaching out for the support of key opposition players. But that option won’t work for this government because of divisions within the Conservative party itself (which I’ll come to shortly), so the only way they can play it is by being rigid, unbending, insisting that there is absolutely no alternative. Flexibility is much the better option, because if you are too rigid the smallest crack can bring the whole edifice tumbling down. So the government has to spend an inordinate amount of time firefighting to prevent such cracks, which means two things: less time and attention can be devoted to longer term planning, and mistakes can happen more frequently. And mistakes are being made all the time: Amber Rudd’s dreadfully ill-judged plan to force British firms to list all of their foreign employees, practically every public statement by David Davis (Minister for Brexit) which has to be immediately followed by a retraction from the PM’s office. They are so busy papering over the cracks that the edifice is now made almost entirely of paper.
But the government has an even greater weakness. They may have a tiny majority in the House of Commons, but they have no majority in the Lords. That is why Theresa May is so keen to trigger Article 50 by Crown Prerogative, because anything that has to go through parliament may well scrape by in the Commons, but could easily be thrown out in the Lords. That means a bruising back and forth battle between the two houses. The government’s need for rigidity means they wouldn’t be able to give any ground, but opposition could reveal possible amendments or compromises that will make the government’s stance appear increasingly irrational. The government, in other words, is in a fight for its life, but without the resources that would give it any confidence of victory.
And the reason the government has to be so rigid is because if they were not the whole Conservative party would disintegrate. Ever since Margaret Thatcher, a sizeable minority of the Conservative party has been vocally opposed to the European Union. Over time, this became the focal issue around which the right of the party congregated, eventually becoming the totem that represented all of their discontents. For a while, Europe became the codeword that allowed them to complain about immigration or loss of sovereignty or political correctness gone mad; but in time this was reversed so that now immigration is a codeword for Europe. When the more lunatic fringe of the party drifted off into UKIP, Europe suddenly acquired the additional impetus of being an existential crisis for the Tories. By now there was a significant Eurosceptic bloc within the party; they were monomaniacal on the issue, selling their votes on other issues only at the expense of the party leadership paying at least lip service to their concerns. David Cameron, a weak leader at the head of an unstable government, first in coalition then with a barely workable majority, agreed to their demands for a referendum purely to keep the Eurosceptic Tories on board for other policies. The referendum was an internal Tory party disagreement, absolutely nothing to do with the needs or wants or interests of the rest of the country, it was feeble and self-serving, and Cameron then went on to lead such an uninspired and disorganised campaign that the Brexit victory may have been a shock but it certainly wasn’t a surprise. Of course the Brexit victory was far less convincing than they pretend, but the very fact of that victory has given the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party more power than ever. Now, a Tory government would be unable to do anything without the support of the Eurosceptics, and the price of that support, of course, is the constant drumbeat of Brexit. Ironically, if the Tory government was not so weak, so dependent on the goodwill of the Eurosceptics, they would be in a far better position to handle the complexities of Brexit.
Normally, such weakness would be fatal for any government. The opposition would be able to chip away at policies, extract compromises, even push through some of their own policies. Unfortunately, every other party is as weak as the Tories.
Labour is the obvious case in point. Tony Blair led the party to an unprecedented period in power, but along the way he relied heavily on spin, he dispensed with many of the traditions of cabinet government, and he blatantly lied to the country in order to lead it into an unpopular and unnecessary war. Long before he finally stepped down from office, he was a toxic brand, particularly to those on the left who were the Labour party’s natural constituency. Neither the technocratic Gordon Brown nor Ed Milliband, who echoed Blair even in his glottal stops, could restore the popularity of the party among those who were looking for a voice on the left. Then came Jeremy Corbyn, whose overwhelming popularity among party members came as a total surprise to party grandees. Whatever Corbyn’s competencies as a leader, and in truth he does not seem to be a natural for the job, he undeniably represents the ideological, ethical, and indeed spiritual heart of what the membership wants the Labour party to be. That is, a socialist party that opposes Tory policy on principle.
Unfortunately, the majority of the party’s MPs achieved their position under Blair’s leadership, and having witnessed up close the efficacy of his “Third Way”, they do not want to return to what they see as the old unelectable days of the Labour party. The one lesson that they have learned from Blair is that the way to power is to occupy the middle ground. However, with the Conservative party shifting ever to the right under the growing influence of the Eurosceptics, so the middle ground also shifts inexorably to the right. Thus there is a growing and perhaps unbridgeable gap opening up between the ambitions of the Parliamentary Labour party and the instincts and beliefs of Corbyn and the party membership. As a result, the Labour party is every bit as divided as the Conservative party, and with such inherent weakness comes an inevitable inability to mount any consistent, coherent or effective opposition.
It has been said that the right wing of the Labour party has more in common with the left wing of the Conservative party, than either has with the rest of their parties. This may well be true. Some have consequently suggested that this might be the basis for a new political grouping. I am less sanguine about the notion; I can see such a grouping coming together over Brexit, but I’m not sure it would last beyond that single issue. Remove that proximate cause and I suspect that such a grouping would prove as inherently unstable as the two main parties are at the moment.
The strongest opposition party, therefore, would appear to be the Scottish Nationalists. Certainly they represent all bar one of the Scottish constituencies, and since Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU they speak with one unified voice and have one powerful cause, all of which gives them greater strength than any other party in parliament. Even so, I think this strength may be rather more illusory than it appears. For a start, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the party and the most visible and vocal advocate of its views, may be the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, but she is not a member of the British parliament. This may be a small thing, but it does remover her from the forum where the key issues are most directly debated and decided. More significant is the fact that the most potent weapon in the SNP arsenal is independence. Certainly Theresa May’s intransigence over Brexit, an unwillingness to take any Scottish desire to remain as part of Europe into account (a consequence of the rigidity her own weak position has forced upon her), has increased antipathy towards the English, but it is an open question whether it has significantly raised support for independence above the level of the 2014 referendum. The likelihood is that if such a referendum were held today there would be a victory for the independence movement, but I suspect it would not be so overwhelming a victory as to give Sturgeon impregnable confidence in her position. The SNP may well be the strongest party in British politics at the moment, but that is not a particularly high hurdle to cross.
As for the other parties, the Liberal Democrats were devastated at the last election, reduced to little more than a rump. So they are starting from a weak base anyway. Furthermore the duplicities and policy reverses of their time in coalition has left them with a huge problem: it is difficult to trust them any more. While in Tim Farron they have a leader who may be the right person to stabilise the party and begin its slow recovery, he is hardly the most charismatic person in politics, so is unlikely to parlay personality into party strength. It is going to take a long time for the party to shake off their current weakness. Plaid Cymru is not even the biggest party in the Welsh Assembly, which hardly gives it a position of strength on wider British politics. And the Northern Irish parties have particular issues that stem from them being tied to each other by the peace agreement. Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted decisively to remain in Europe, an issue complicated by the fact that this is the only part of Great Britain to have a land border with the EU, and keeping that border open to the free movement of goods and people is seen as an integral part of the peace agreement. Both sides in Northern Ireland, therefore, see Brexit as a threat to the peace and integrity of the province. But their doubts take different forms: the Republicans are worried that they might be cut off from the Republic of Ireland, the Nationalists are worried that they might be cut off from England. It is unlikely that they will be able to resolve their differences to present a united front on the matter. Furthermore, Sinn Fein MPs never take their seats in parliament because to do so would require taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen, and they refuse to acknowledge her as head of state. So, again, they are weaker than the situation requires.
All in all, therefore, the entire question of our position in Europe and the state of the country after Brexit is going to be decided not by which side has the most coherent plan or the greatest confidence, but simply by which side is weakest. It is hardly a state of affairs to instil confidence in our future.