Imagine the two main parties of the British political system as two massive, heavy velvet curtains, a little moth-eaten, frayed. People are swinging on them and they are on the point of ripping. With a long, tearing sound, part of each is about to come crashing to the floor.
They were expected to split years ago. There have been one or two rents but those were stitched together somehow. Now the curtains are being held together by little more than memories and the lack of an alternative. They are musty, smelling of damp and mice.
The Tories have been divided over the issue of Europe for decades; they are more divided than ever. This week a cabinet meeting at Chequers ended with another pathetic fudge where little was agreed except that “the soup was excellent”. There is no plan to speak of in truth.
Business people are growing impatient – there is simply no reason why Brexit should lead to individual British-based businesses doing more trade with the rest of the world. If anything the reverse is likely to be true – they are on the brink of losing competitive advantages such as being able to import goods to the UK and then transport them to the EU.
The Brexiteers’ approach to the Irish question is incoherent – how can Britain leave the Customs Union AND have no hard border with Ireland?
The coming splits
There is a tear starting. No more than a handful of passionate Remainers in the Tory party are really committed to the European project – but many more are pragmatists concerned that the game isn’t worth the candle. They don’t like the feeling of marching to the fanatics’ tune.
The hard Brexiteers should be left as a rump and the rest should form a new moderate centre-right party prepared to work with others on specific areas. The government is already a coalition between the Tories and the DUP – future governments could draw coalitions from a wider range.
The Labour Party is equally divided. In the early 80s, it risked falling into the hands of Militant and other entryists – senior politicians dubbed ‘the Gang of Four” left and tried to change the landscape of UK politics by starting the SDP; it didn’t work then – it could this time. A friend recalls joining the Party in the 60s when he had to fill in an extensive questionnaire and wait to be accepted as a member. When he enquired about the formality he was told it was necessary to prevent entryism by Communists. He feels, as many others do, that when the party opened itself up to £3 membership with voting rights it fell into the hands of the extremist left. The ‘moderates’, in his view, are cowed.
They are deeply riven on Brexit – on Monday we await a new statement from Jeremy Corbyn on his Brexit position but many predict it will be just another brand of fudge. The new-age Stalinists who took control of the Labour Party are Lefty-Brexiteers, Lexiteers. They have a vision, just as Uncle Joe did, of Socialism in one country. They believe a post-Brexit Britain will be able to raise wages and nationalise everything. But in an era of globalisation where the nation state is ever weaker in the face of the mighty corporation this is just porky-pie in the sky.
All in it together
Take the “right to be forgotten” being asserted by the EU against Google and Facebook. Privacy has a resonance in countries that knew Fascism and Communism. But how far would one little country such as Estonia, say, get with demanding this alone? It is only by sticking together that citizens’ rights can be asserted and defended.
And the workers’ post-EU utopia? Post-Brexit Britain would be competing with the US and other low tax economies as a base to do business. There would be massive pressure to lower taxes on the rich. Without the UK, the EU too might suffer – a moderate Britain could be a strong voice for democracy and human rights, a counterpoint to some of the right-wing nationalist parties growing in strength. It is salutary to remind oneself of how many EU countries were dictatorships in living memory. It is most of them.
MPs in both parties can see the dangers of the present course. But too many defer to the dangerous idealogues who have managed to gain control of both parties. The moderates seem timid and uncertain. They justify their failure to take a stand by deferring to a marginal and unclear vote for a Brexit which was never defined.
I hope the parties do split. This is a time when the country needs some people prepared to step out of the shadows and offer leadership, and a vision that moderates from both sides could share. It could be the best thing for Britain and Europe if those musty curtains are torn down.