The Prime Minster won a victory, of sorts, yesterday in the House of Commons, although there were probably few people as surprised as her. It’s a curious sort of victory though which is achieved by voting against her own proposal, and demanding that her own supporters do likewise in order to support instead a position that she herself saidwas “impossible” just a few weeks ago, and which, apparently, the EU’s leaders had told her just hours before she encouraged MPs to vote for it was not going to be on the table. Still, believing six impossible things before Brexit is the new norm in the Tory Party. When she previously said that there was “no alternative” to her deal, it now seems that what she meant to say was that there was “no alternative other than the undefined one that is now the new one to which there is no alternative”.
She’s trapped in a parallel universe entirely of her own manufacture where every escape route back to normality is blocked by the inherent contradictions of her own party, reinforced by the results of her consistent inconsistency and refusal to accept fact. She has given herself up as a hostage to a gang of zealots for the sole reason that her biggest red line is that she is determined to do the one thing that most of those zealots don’t actually give a damn about anyway, namely to control immigration from the EU, in the apparent belief that all those who voted for Brexit to stop immigration were really saying that they wanted more Indians instead of Poles. Some people feel almost sorry for her – that’s entirely misplaced. The people I feel sorry for are the negotiators of the EU who are vainly trying to comprehend the apparent determination of the leaders of a soon-to-be ex-member to press the self-destruction button.
Yet still the zealots persist with the fantasy that the EU will “blink and offer us better terms”, roll over, and give the UK what it wants despite the fact that that would mean abandoning the interests of a member state in favour of a non-member and risking the integrity of the single market which the UK itself did so much to help them create.
There is a yawning gap in ideology and world view between the UK and the EU, and the hall-mark of any successful negotiation – recognising what the other side wants – has been completely absent from the UK’s approach from the outset. The world view driving the extreme Brexiteers is based on competition and the notion that size and power determine outcomes and that the weak and small should be bulldozed aside in pursuit of that. It’s compounded, of course, by a self-estimate of the size and power of the UK in the modern world which owes more to the 18th Century than the 21st; but they really can’t understand why the EU isn’t playing by the same rules. From this perspective, Ireland is peripheral, just a bit of collateral damage as the big boys carve up the spoils. The founding principle of the EU, on the other hand, was economic integration, driven by a determination that Europe – and most especially, France and Germany – could never tear the continent apart in another war if their industries were sufficiently interdependent. The Single Market may well have been a UK-inspired idea, but it fits perfectly with that perspective. And the idea that European states stand or fall together is an underlying driver of the determination to protect Ireland from the folly of its nearest neighbour.
There is no meeting of minds between these perspectives, although I suspect that the EU understand the UK perspective very well – probably better than the current UK government does. The unicorn analogy to Brexit has been overdone – including by me – but the Independent came out with another interesting analogy yesterday, asking us to “imagine for a moment that the House of Commons passed a bill to repeal the laws of gravity, and ordered the prime minister to go away and implement it”. In some ways it’s no sillier than what the House of Commons actually did yesterday, but the idea that they can do such a thing highlights the effect of a belief that sovereignty is absolute and indivisible and vested by God in one place. This is the fiction at the heart of the UK’s unwritten constitution; Brexit has brought home to some of us the scale of the problems posed by a constitution founded on a fiction. Unfortunately, the opposition party in Westminster is as wedded to the fiction as the governing party, severely limiting the opportunity for reform whilst we remain hitched to Westminster.