Against a backdrop of disillusion with politics, a sense of atrophy and failure to fulfil public expectation, and a disconnect between the aspirations of the electorate and their elected representatives, we are faced with some poor choices in an election just before Christmas that no-one wants. London4Europe Vice Chair Keith Best reflects on some likely implications.
On one hand we have the Government obsessed with Getting Brexit Done (whatever that means) and an Opposition which might well end up, if in a position to do so, advising the public to vote against its own re-negotiated deal in a referendum! No wonder there is frustration.
The reality is that first, you can never subject a complex relationship over more than 40 years (which represents our membership of the EU) to a yes/no plebiscite and end up with a clear answer, nuances and all. Secondly, as referendums have no part in our Constitution and can only ever legally be advisory (because Parliament is supreme) there should be a self-denying ordnance in the future (if ever we are minded to go through this again) on any political party committing to implement the decision, whatever the margins or turnout, rather than agreeing to take the result into account.
We still have representative democracy in the UK in which we expect our politicians to consider in depth the issues of the day, rather than deciding them by some public poll. Thirdly, once the Government had committed to honouring the referendum result (however unwisely) there should have been time before invoking Article 50 for reflection on all the implications of the multitude of relationships (on science, medicine, trade, security, migration and movement etc).
If all this had happened, we would now be in a much happier place than at present. Okay, you can accuse me of the benefit of hindsight (but, at least, that might inform us as to future actions). Clear crystal balls are in short supply and highly prized when found. If the famed psephologists such as Sir John Curtice cannot accurately predict the outcome of the poll on 12 December then it is indeed presumptuous of myself to try to do so. Nevertheless, it is tempting to think of the outcomes of various scenarios.
A new Conservative Government with a workable majority will, no doubt, reintroduce the previous Bill and try to get it through all its stages before 31 January - yet, unless it is forced through on a tight timetable it will be subject to a series of amendments which may or may not have to be accepted by the Government depending on its majority. The new factor, of course, will be, with the future of the Government itself no longer at stake, whether the ERG will follow Farage's line and rebel against what Farage described on the Andrew Marr show as virtually worse than us remaining in the EU. If the Cabinet is largely unchanged, then that will require some high profile resignations – those of the Rees-Mogg or Raab persuasion may find the allure of office supersedes scruples about the purity of the nature of our exit from the EU.
On the other hand, a minority Labour Government will wish to pursue its objective of renegotiation of withdrawal (but, frankly, with little chance of success from the EU negotiators) and would then feel obliged to put the result to a referendum. Depending on which party or parties prop up such a Government the price of co-operation from both the LibDems and the SNP would be a second referendum (if the Lib Dems do not secure a parliamentary majority, they will not be purist and continue to press for an immediate revocation of Article 50; instead, they would support any party or parties seeking a People's Vote, and then if in that the people decided to remain, they would Revoke Article 50.
In these cases, the four-year flirtation with leaving the EU may be at an end. How, then, to reconcile the strong and disappointed voices of Leavers? I suspect that the issue will not die a natural death. There will have to be some mechanism, whether an all-party Parliamentary Committee or other independent body to examine in detail the nature of our various relationships with the EU in science, medicine, trade, financial services, agriculture, fisheries, energy, security, defence etc (the list is almost endless!) to examine and report on the implications for the UK of changing those relationships. Maybe, in such circumstances, we can have a more focused and informed debate about these issues which, as I have indicated above, was what was needed all along. There will always be those who feel that our future is more secure outside the EU but, likewise, many (arguably, now a majority) who recognise in a world of trading blocs that we have greater security in every sense by being in a union of like-minded states with a common heritage and of some 500 million people with real clout in the world against the encroachments of the likes of the USA, China and ASEAN (which, interestingly, is now seeking to further cement its internal ties).
In September 2019 The Policy Institute of King’s College, London produced a booklet entitled “Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK” which I commend. In a barren landscape of commentary predicting doom and gloom and lasting division, it gives some hope for the future healing of wounds. It points out that, unlike in the USA, the number of people who strongly identify with a political party has declined significantly, and is now far exceeded by the number who strongly identify with their side of the Brexit vote.
By 2018, only 9 per cent of the electorate said they very strongly identified with a political party, compared with nearly half of the electorate in the 1960s. In contrast, Brexit identities have established themselves in an extremely short period of time, often surpassing traditional party identities, and 44 per cent say they very strongly identify with their side of the Brexit vote.
In the run-up to the EU referendum views were polarised on a range of highly salient issues, particularly immigration. But this issue – one of the key drivers of division in the referendum – has since declined significantly in salience and perceptions of the impact of immigration have actually become more positive, with a narrowing of the gap in opinion between Leavers and Remainers. Added to this, there are many aspects of attitudes and identity in the UK that are converging rather than polarising, such as views on key public policy challenges like health and social care and on issues such as gender roles, homosexuality and racial prejudice. Evidence of ‘issue polarisation’ is therefore less clear-cut. Where there is polarisation it seems to be more along generation and wealth lines. This is pointed out in a forthcoming book by Lord Willetts entitled The Pinch – relying heavily on some interesting statistics from the Resolution Foundation.
We tend to be a nation of optimists. I am in those ranks. I believe that the current ruptures over Brexit will heal in the way I have described. What the Government (whichever it is) must concentrate on are the more deep-seated divisions which have far graver implications for social cohesion.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.