Brexit may be a price worth paying for the cohesion of British society

The economic arguments of the past three years have done nothing to sway people whose vote was about culture, identity and fairness

Anti-Brexit activist Steve Bray (L) stands with a chart asking people to show if they think Labour should during the Labour party conference in Brighton, on the south coast of England on September 23, 2019. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-Brexit activist Steve Bray (L) stands with a chart asking people to show if they think Labour should during the Labour party conference in Brighton, on the south coast of England on September 23, 2019. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

 

To think that we used to worry about political apathy. That was before Brexit became a psychodrama and the BBC Parliament channel acquired more viewers than MTV.

When Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, announced that he would stay neutral on the biggest question facing the UK, it didn’t seem much weirder than his party’s pledge to strike a new deal with the EU and then campaign against it. Nor was it as odd as the spectacle of a former prime minister, John Major, challenging the current premier, Boris Johnson, in the Supreme Court on the legality of suspending parliament for five weeks.

The endless plot twists are taking their toll on our sanity and Britain’s reputation. Ministers return phone calls within minutes, having nothing to do but scroll through Twitter while pretending to run moribund departments. The Treasury, hitherto the guardian of fiscal sobriety, has announced breathlessly that “duty-free shopping with the EU is coming back if we leave without a deal”. I don’t remember cheap booze being on the side of the bus. Perhaps the Treasury could throw in some medical isotopes?

Concerned as I am about the threat to our economy from Brexit, I am beginning to feel this is now outweighed by the threat to the cohesion of our society, and the damage to business confidence, if the uncertainty continues. While I am driven mad by those who argue that we must “get on with it”, with no idea of what “it” actually is, I now think that there is no going back from Brexit in some form.

What crystallised my thinking was the pledge by Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to revoke Article 50. I would love to put the genie back in the bottle, but I am not sure you can wish away a democratic vote. The clarity of the policy could make the Lib Dems the second biggest party if there is an election before we leave the EU. But it jars, for a party historically in favour of proportional representation, to seek to erase the biggest democratic exercise in our recent history.

One of my most vivid memories of referendum night in Number 10 Downing Street is the moment we realised that people were turning out to vote who hadn’t bothered in years. They were seizing the chance to bash a self-serving elite in London and Brussels, and to express a pride in being British. Our polling had not picked up these non-voters. Needless to say, Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s principal adviser, is now tracking them. Consigning those voices to the scrapheap once again would be a deeply retrograde step for our democracy.

The anger is palpable. The economic arguments of the past three years have done nothing to sway people whose vote was about culture, identity and fairness. Inside the metropolitan bubble, there is concern at the prime minister’s high-handed attitude to parliament.

Outside, many people wonder why MPs are blocking what they thought they voted for. And while Westminster reports his bungles with horror, Mr Johnson’s poll ratings since he took office have continued to improve.

Neither Brussels nor businesses have stood still while the politicians wrangle. Japanese car production volumes will not return, and the EU-Japan free trade deal will make it logical to shift more production to Japan. Big corporations have quietly moved resources offshore. The possibility of a leftwing Corbyn government is driving investment out of the country. If that is coupled with further erosion of our reputation for stability, it will cause untold damage.

Within the EU itself, the Brexit vote has accelerated momentum towards deeper integration, endorsed by the incoming European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. Former prime minister David Cameron, in publishing his memoirs this week, has been at pains to argue that EU membership has been a running sore which would have continued to bleed.

Mr Cameron’s attempted renegotiation was a reminder of the myriad gaps between British common law and the codified legal system that binds the EU. Far from acknowledging the arguments for a “two-speed” Europe, the EU is now unifying.

Despite having had three years to do his homework, Mr Johnson still does not seem to fully understand why no other country has ever left a trade bloc, or what challenges are inherent in what is likely to be a decade of negotiation. He is doomed to repeat Theresa May’s mistake of prioritising frictionless trade in goods over services.

The Labour opposition is almost equally delusional, claiming it could bring back a wholly different deal. The lack of honesty about the real trade-offs involved in Brexit is storing up trouble with the public on the other side. But it also means there is insufficient buyers’ remorse to legitimise revoking

Article 50.

A second referendum would be the only democratic way to overturn the first vote. But if the narrow lead were reversed, we would simply have prolonged the uncertainty to arrive somewhere equally unstable.

I realise I may have fallen into the Johnson-Cummings trap. Their intention is to bludgeon us so much with the horror of no deal that we will grasp in relief at any alternative. But compromise lies at the heart of any successful democracy.

The most likely outcome now is that the prime minister will put a deal to the House of Commons in mid-October, and it will pass. After that, we will need to channel all this political engagement into something positive.

Camilla Cavendish is a former head of the Downing Street policy unit and Harvard senior fellow

Financial Times service

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