The past fortnight has seen yet more twists and turns in the Brexit saga. The first was the agreement of the United Kingdom and the European Union on an exit deal. This was no surprise. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson simply reverted to an arrangement that the EU had originally offered the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, which she had rejected. It involves Northern Ireland remaining in the EU customs union and single market — to preserve the soft border with the Republic of Ireland — and allowing the rest of the UK, the island of Great Britain, to leave. The practical effect is to place Northern Ireland, an integral part of the UK, under a different legal and regulatory regime from the rest of the country.
More surprising was that this arrangement was agreed, in principle, by the House of Commons, where the Conservatives are a minority, by a narrow majority. Yet despite this victory — something which had eluded his predecessor — Mr Johnson decided instead to seek an early general election. He wants a stable majority to prevent “his” agreement being amended out of all recognition by Parliament. After some misgivings, the Opposition parties acceded to his request.
The UK now faces a general election on December 12. It is hard to think of a more important election in British political history. Although the outcome may be difficult to predict, it is easy to predict that the result — one or way or another — will fundamentally shape the course of British history for generations.
If Mr Johnson’s Conservatives win an overall majority, his exit deal will pass. The economic harm caused by Great Britain’s departure from the EU single market and customs union will be, in all likelihood, immense. But the political impact would be no less immense. The sentiment in favour of uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic will be significantly strengthened. There is already only a narrow margin in favour of remaining in the UK. It is likely to disappear. Meanwhile, the argument is being powerfully made in Scotland that if Northern Ireland can remain in the EU’s economic structures, why can’t Scotland too. The Scottish National Party, in government in Scotland, has said it will demand another independence referendum. Recent polls suggest that this time the campaign for independence will be victorious. Once Scotland leaves the UK, Wales is unlikely to be far behind.
Such an outcome would be rich in historic irony. The Conservatives, or the Conservative and Unionist Party to give them their full title, would have presided over the breakup of the Union; support for which has been virtually their only consistent principle since the party’s creation some 150 years ago.
If, on the other hand, the general election produces another hung Parliament, all kinds of possibilities emerge. The UK could remain in the EU customs union and single market. There could be another referendum on whether to leave the EU; and — if the opinion polls are to be believed — the British public could vote to remain. And if the UK remains, although there will still be difficulties to overcome, the immediate threat to the country’s well-being will have been averted.
How is it then that the UK has arrived at a juncture where its very existence is potentially at stake? The simple answer is that the Conservative PM David Cameron called the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU because he wanted to kill off the growing hostility to the EU in his party and destroy the growing threat to the right posed by the nationalist UK Independence Party. He lost because he led a disastrous campaign, which completely failed to put forward a positive case for Europe. Although ostensibly correct, this explanation ignores the pathology of the Conservative Party.
Deep in the Conservative psyche is the feeling that the Conservative Party is the only legitimate party of government. Other parties when they govern are interlopers and, somehow, unpatriotic, so goes the thinking. This has led to a deep sense that the Conservative Party is more than just a political party. Its fortunes and those of the nation are intimately bound together. Its interests are more than vulgar political ones; they are national interests. It and the nation are one.
It is this pathology which led Mr Cameron to think it acceptable to gamble with the country’s future to resolve his party’s political problems. It is this pathology which caused him to fight a half-hearted campaign, holding back from attacking leave-supporting colleagues. Forget the UK’s future, party unity had to be preserved at all costs. And it is this pathology which has informed the actions of a large segment of the Conservative Party since the referendum.
In the immediate aftermath of the result, there was a window of opportunity. Ms May, who became Prime Minister directly after, could have opened out to other political parties to create a national consensus on the way forward. Instead, she prioritised keeping the Conservative Party together, by appeasing her party’s Europhobes and shutting out the Opposition.
With a few brave and honourable exceptions, Conservative MPs too have put party loyalty above the national interest. Most of them voted remain in the referendum. Deep down they know what harm Brexit will cause. Yet the vast majority have loyally toed the party line and spouted the party’s propaganda. Like an abused wife who cannot admit that her husband is a brute and that the marriage is over, they continue to believe — deep down — that the Conservative Party is still the only party that can be trusted with the national interest. At each stage of the Conservatives’ metamorphosis into a nationalistic party of the hard right, they have subordinated their own political personalities and meekly submitted.
In the meantime, the political psycho drama continues, and the country has to suffer its consequences. One can only hope that the general election puts the Conservatives out of their misery and the country on course for a saner future....