The veteran Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole argues that the Brexit mess is less about Europe and more a reflection of internal problems within the UK, and that Brexit is a symptom of its ills rather than a cause. And the main issue is that its current four-nation composition cannot function within its present structure.
Yet in Theresa May’s humiliation on Tuesday, there were prizes for almost everybody else: a glimpse of opportunity for her rivals in cabinet; a revival of their sadomasochistic no-deal fantasies for the zealots; the hope of a second referendum for remainers; proof of the near-collapse of the Westminster order for nationalists; the hope of a general election for Jeremy Corbyn. But in truth nobody has won anything – it is a losing game all round.
Even if May were a political genius – and let us concede that she is not – Brexit was always going to come down to a choice between two evils: the heroic but catastrophic failure of crashing out; or the unheroic but less damaging failure of swapping first-class for second-class EU membership. These are the real afterlives of a departed reverie.
The visible collapse of the Westminster polity this week may be a result of Brexit, but Brexit itself is the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order over recent decades.
What we see with the lid off and the fog of fantasies at last beginning to dissipate is the truth that Brexit is much less about Britain’s relationship with the EU than it is about Britain’s relationship with itself. It is the projection outwards of an inner turmoil. An archaic political system had carried on even while its foundations in a collective sense of belonging were crumbling. Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change.
European leaders have continually expressed exasperation that the British have really been negotiating not with them, but with each other. But perhaps it is time to recognise that there is a useful truth in this: Brexit is really just the vehicle that has delivered a fraught state to a place where it can no longer pretend to be a settled and functioning democracy. Brexit’s work is done – everyone can now see that the Westminster dodo is dead. It is time to move on from the pretence that the problem with British democracy is the EU and to recognise that it is with itself.
In watching this train wreck from a distance, I have been struck by Theresa May’s performance. It is true that her predecessor as prime minister David Cameron bungled the whole thing and then left it to her to clean it up. It would require a deep-thinking visionary to find a way out of this morass. May is clearly not it. She seems to me to be a hard-working person, the kind of competent middle manager who can be relied upon to successfully implement a clearly articulated policy that is given to her. But she simply does not seem to have the ability to rise to this occasion and does not seem to realize her limitations. Unfortunately the Conservative party and the ruling class in the UK generally seem to be so terrified of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister that they have no choice but to stick with her as she steers the ship of state into the iceberg that everyone can clearly see lies straight ahead.