The Brexit crisis is more about the UK and less about Europe


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.

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    Your headline is right, up to a point. It’s not really about Europe. It’s not really about the UK, either. It’s not even about England, or the south, or London, or Westminster. It’s not even about Parliament.

    It’s about the competitiveness of a surprisingly small group of independently wealthy, privately educated upper class white middle aged men.

    Yes, other people might have opinions about it – but if you’re black, or Asian, or left wing, or a woman, or Bod forbid poor (i.e. with net liquid assets of fewer than seven figures), your opinion is utterly, utterly irrelevant except insofar as it can be bent towards accomplishing some goal for one or other faction of Tory nobs. (Note, I use the term “nobs” as distinct from “knobs”, although the latter also applies). I’m appalled we’ve allowed these people to get us to this position. The French would have the right idea what to do with them.

  2. Holms says

    But she simply does not seem to have the ability to rise to this occasion and does not seem to realize her limitations.

    To be fair to her, the situation was impossible from the outset: there is no way to exit the EU without putting a hard border through Ireland, which Ireland considers unacceptable and non-negotiable. And that is without even getting to the rest of the exit, which was complicated enough and was made worse with her triggering the exit clause without having a plan in place.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … a fissiparous four-nation state …

    O’Toole seems to have forgotten the mighty Manx, who will surely commence sounding of tocsins and rattling of spears against shields sometime next week once the packet boat brings word of this intolerable slight to their sovereign shores!

  4. fentex says

    I think that argument about the death of Westminster governance is nonsense and confuses divisions within the UK with problems of governance.

    The UK could improve it’s governance immensely by instituting Proportional Representation – t works just swell with the Westminster model and would relieve a lot of the UKs problems.

  5. mnb0 says

    “Brexit in one way alone has done a real service.”
    In another far more important way it has done a much bigger service – literally nobody, not even the worst so called Eurosceptics, is promoting any exit anymore. Nexiteers (Netherlands), Grexiteers (Greece), Frexiteers (France) etc. etc. – they’ve all been thoroughly silenced by this debacle.

    “But she simply does not seem to have the ability to rise to this occasion and does not seem to realize her limitations.”
    Nobody has that ability, so whether she realizes her limitations is irrelevant. I understand that for ideological reasons you think Corbyn the next messiah. This is why you always carefully omit the inconvenient fact that he’s a so called Eurosceptic as well. If you think you will do better, forget it (but of course you won’t take this advise). For one thing Labour is as divided as the Tories on this topic (something you also carefully neglect unless it suits you).
    Probably the Brexit will be delayed. The EU has no real interest in the UK falling apart. Instead it’s interest is in keeping the UK bungling as long as possible, so that it’s position becomes as weak as possible. So predictably in this farce it completely backs Ireland.

  6. KG says

    O’Toole seems to have forgotten the mighty Manx – Pierce R. Butler@3

    The Isle of Man (like the Channel Isles) is not part of the UK (legally, it’s a “Crown Dependency”, otherwise known as a “tax haven”), and is not in the EU. I don’t recall seeing any discussion of how Brexit will/would affect it.

    I think that argument about the death of Westminster governance is nonsense and confuses divisions within the UK with problems of governance. – fentex@3

    I don’t wholly agree with O’Toole, but the two issues can’t be separated. One reason Scotland voted clearly Remain (62%) was a fear (fully justified in my view) that the Westminster government would grab the powers no longer exercised at EU level, undermining devolution, and once again subjecting Scotland to unfettered Tory rule despite their party not getting above 30% of the vote in Scotland for decades.

    Instead it’s interest is in keeping the UK bungling as long as possible, so that it’s position becomes as weak as possible. So predictably in this farce it completely backs Ireland. – mnbO@5

    Do you have any evidence for this claim? The EU backs Ireland against the UK because Ireland is staying in the EU and the UK is leaving. It needs to show it looks after its member-states, including the small ones.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    “The UK could improve it’s governance immensely by instituting Proportional Representation”

    LOL. You haven’t been paying attention. Callmedave Cameron failed to win the election in 2010, and the only way he’d sniff power was by promising the Lib Dems a… referendum. Which we had. And in which proportional representation was soundly rejected by a tiny turnout from an entirely apathetic electorate.

    @mnbo:
    ” Labour is as divided as the Tories ”

    Nope. Labour is NOT as divided as the Tories. A *large* minority of Tories oppose Europe on the grounds that it’s too socialist. A tiny, tiny minority of the parliamentary Labour party oppose it on the grounds it’s not socialist enough. Unfortunately, it’s this tiny cadre of morons who currently hold the leadership after their joke candidate accidentally won. The vast, overwhelming majority of Labour MPs are Remainers.

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