Events during the referendum reminded us, if we needed to be reminded, of the merits of genuine parliamentary democracy and the dangers of plebiscites.
An overall narrow majority to leave the EU was achieved on the basis of widespread lies and fantasies and a distribution of the vote that could only exacerbate existing divisions within the UK. As is well known, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, Scotland by a large margin. Both during and after the referendum the Electoral Commission showed itself a broken reed, unable to check deliberate misrepresentations and only very tardily moving after the referendum was over to investigate founded complaints of irregularities and law-breaking, particularly by the Leave campaign. Even if the Remain campaign had been successful in 2016, the referendum and the events leading up to it would have been a sorry, sordid episode in our national history.
Stephen, like many others, regarded the casual anarchy of the referendum process with the greatest possible disdain.To elevate the narrow outcome of this ramshackle and shoddy affair to an unalterable expression of the popular will was for him the proof positive that the absence of a written constitution was an irresistible invitation to manipulation and bad faith. Untrammelled Parliamentary sovereignty was abused in 2016 by those having no real respect for it to allow a Conservative government to transpose to the national stage its internal disputes, offering the electorate an insufficiently specified binary choice on a matter of great complexity. The weaknesses and ambiguities of the British political system permitted the bolting on to an anyway doubtfully functional Parliamentary system of a legally fuzzy referendum that had been carried out in the most dubious and controversial fashion possible…
…Far from being settled, the internal divisions of the Conservative Party were given an extra and more dangerous twist by the narrow outcome of the referendum. The radical Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has moved into claim its spoils, showing no desire to function as generous or conciliatory victors. They were the winners and they wanted to take it all. Over the past two years, the Conservative Parliamentary Party has been riven by the conflict between those who wanted the UK after Brexit to remain closely aligned with the EU as a trading partner; and those who did not, or at least attached little or no importance to doing so. It is important to stress that this division finds little echo in the broader Conservative Party. Most of those who select Conservative MPs and may in future deselect them are squarely behind the most visceral and combative form of Euroscepticism. The confidence with which the ERG goes about its business is a function of the wide measure of support it knows it enjoys within the Party outside Westminster…
…It is grossly over-optimistic to claim that postponing the triggering of Article 50 would have led to a more rational course of the Brexit negotiations. Only the opening of negotiations and many months of unsuccessful negotiations could ever have brought forth even the limited degree of realism implicit in the Chequers plan. As we know, the Chequers plan pleased neither side of the Conservative debate and attracted a final, unexpectedly categorical EU rejection at the Salzburg summit. The “Chequers” plan, while presented by May as a compromise, leant distinctly in the direction of those wishing a radical break with the EU. It seems likely that the criticism now directed at it by Tusk and others will hasten the process whereby the Conservative Party unambiguously embraces a more distant future relationship with the EU after Brexit, perhaps taking the Canadian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as a model for this relationship. At the beginning of the Brexit negotiations this would have been styled as a “hard Brexit,” because it implies that the UK will remain outside both the single market and the Customs Union. It is widely recognised as being the most economically damaging form of Brexit apart from an entirely chaotic and non-consensual Brexit. It seems however to be the likeliest form of Brexit for the present Conservative Party to be able to accept….
…There is an irony in the centrality of Ireland to the Brexit negotiations. The Easter Rising of 1916 is rightly regarded as the first crack in the edifice of the British empire. A hundred years later many of those voting in the EU referendum succumbed to the seductive charms of imperial nostalgia. It has fallen to Ireland to remind the rulers of the UK how different the world is today from what it was a century ago. May supposedly remarked to Jean-Claude Juncker in November 2017 that she could not believe that a country as relatively unimportant as Ireland should be allowed to block progress in the Brexit negotiations. She has had nearly a year to ponder the falseness of that perception. In the strange, oscillating Eurosceptic narrative of British superiority and British victimhood the idea that the EU wants to punish the UK is a recurrent theme. EU member states are of course far too preoccupied defending what they see as their own interests in the Brexit negotiations to be bothered with punishing the UK. I do sense, however, in some of our EU partners a readiness to do something that might sound similar, namely to teach the British a lesson. That lesson ought not to be a painful one. It is a lesson about the power of solidarity. There are many more small states in the EU than there are large states. These small states are reassured by what they rightly see as the willingness of the EU as a whole to support Ireland in defending its vital national interest in the preservation of the Good FridayAgreement (GFA).
From the beginning of the Brexit negotiations the Irish government was well aware that if the UK did not enter into an EEA-like arrangement with the EU, then Brexit was likely to lead to the erection of at least some customs and regulatory barriers between the UK and EU. This matters to the Irish government because Anglo-Irish trade is centrally important to the Irish economy. Ireland is already looking against the prospect of Brexit to diversify its trade away from the UK, but this is a process that inevitably will take time. Even more importantly, however, new barriers to trade within the island of Ireland are rightly feared by Dublin as a potential threat to the existing level of economic, social and political integration on the island , to which the GFA of 1998 made a decisive contribution. Supported by the rest of the EU, the Irish government has made it a central objective of the Brexit negotiations for the EU side to ensure that whatever the general trading arrangement between the UK and the EU after Brexit there will be arrangements applicable to the island of Ireland that ensure genuinely frictionless interchange between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The emerging prospect of an FTA’s being the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations will certainly increase the concerns of the Irish government in this regard. If the EU is willing to conclude with the British government an FTA agreement, that agreement must in the view of the Irish government and the EU as a whole contain provisions which protect the specific interests of the island of Ireland.
In the Joint Report of December 2017, the British government unambiguously agreed to the principle of an Irish backstop to protect these interests, but demurred at the Commission’s formulation of this principle in a draft treaty text of March, 2018. The UK’s partners have been awaiting since that date for the proposed alternative British version of a final treaty text. There is considerable suspicion that May’s government, under pressure from the DUP, is now unable or unwilling to come up with any text remotely acceptable to Ireland and the EU. The interview of Boris Johnson in this weekend’s Sunday Times, describing the backstop simply as a “form of words”, “verba et praeter ea nihil”, will have fuelled this suspicion. The debacle of Salzburg strongly suggests that British officials and politicians are too much given to wishful thinking in their assessment of likely attitudes and negotiating tactics from the EU side…
Indefinite Customs Union?
…There are recent suggestions that the British government is preparing to make further concessions on the Irish issue. If these reports are correct, the suggestion that the UK could remain indefinitely in a form of Customs Union with the EU will arouse opposition from the DUP and many Conservative MPs, while being uncertain of acceptance by the EU. The dependence of the British government on the DUP to sustain its minority government has drastically undermined May‘s scope for flexibility in this field. There are moreover many in the Conservative Party actively working to prevent any Withdrawal Agreement and controversy over the “backstop” is for them a welcome pretext for frustrating the negotiating process. Much of the Conservative press has spent the past eighteen months claiming that the Irish government is pursuing an agenda of Irish reunification by exaggerating the objective problems caused for the island of Ireland by an FTA or similar outcome to the Brexitnegotiations.
Any original European desire to help May and her government in managing the self-inflicted wound of Brexit is now much diminished by months of evasion and incoherence on the British side. It may well be that some on the EU side overestimate the likelihood of British concessions on this issue. But there will equally be many who regard with distaste what they see as British attempts at blackmail, particularly when that blackmail is attempted in a fraught situation exclusively created by the British themselves. May seemed to associate herself with this bizarre misconception, arguing that the EU had an obligation to follow her interpretation of the outcome of the 2016 referendum held in the UK…
Brexit’s political tsunami
…The volatility and uncertainty of the present situation is an eloquent testimony to the political tsunami unleashed by the Brexit process.
First, I find it very difficult to believe that this Conservative government can come to any Withdrawal Arrangement. Controversy over the Irish backstop and the divorce bill will almost certainly generate opposition within the Party so widespread as to make it politically impossible for May to conclude an agreement with the EU that will not destroy her government and irreparably divide her party. May has made it clear over the past three years that there is nothing more important to her than the preservation of the Conservative Party in government in something like its present format. I am sure she genuinely believes that the preservation of a Conservative government is in the high national interest. I do not, however, believe that the Commons as a whole will be prepared to acquiesce in any anarchic outcome to the Brexit negotiations. I personally think it unlikely that there will be a General Election in the near future, because the Conservative Party and the DUP will use their majority to continue sustaining the present government, not least because of the DUP’s fear of a Corbyn-led government. If the Commons wishes to act to prevent a catastrophic Brexit next year, I imagine it will consider two main options, a further referendum or a national government. I personally would welcome a national government to hold a new referendum and perhaps change the voting system——stranger things have happened. But I think it more likely that a further referendum would take place, with an extension of the Article 50 being asked for and granted. I would be surprised if remaining in the EU were not then one of the options on the ballot paper. This new referendum would in my view be won by the “Remain” camp and the present structure of British party politics would be reconfigured probably during and certainly after the referendum campaign. The reconstructed party landscape would make easier, but by no means entirely straightforward, the UK’s future role within the EU.
Second, the possibility cannot be ruled out that May is able in extremis to conclude a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, with an Irish backstop and pointing towards an FTA in future between the EU and the UK. This is obviously an intrinsically undesirable outcome for the UK and one that will leave much economic uncertainty throughout the so-called transition period. It is a million miles away from the lofty talk of a “bespoke arrangement” and frictionless trade. It is emphatically not what a large number of those voting for Brexit in 2016 thought they were voting for, which was essentially the continuation of present economic interchanges between the UK and EU. If May does achieve such a Withdrawal Agreement, I think the parliamentary arithmetic would be very tight for its acceptance or rejection. The DUP might well vote against it because of any Irish backstop it contained. There would be crypto-remainer Conservatives voting against it. There would be many, perhaps most of the, Labour MPs voting against it. The SNP would presumably vote against it. The ERG might well vote against it if May presented its terms as being those contained in the “Chequers” proposals. If a Parliamentary majority could be constructed against May’s Withdrawal Agreement, the alternatives outlined in the case of “No deal” would come into play, with a possible further option for the Commons to ask the government to reopen negotiations with the EU. I very much doubt whether the EU would be willing seriously to envisage such a possibility.
Third, if any kind of Brexit takes place, and even perhaps if Brexit does not take place, the constitutional stability of the UK will be and indeed already has been gravely undermined. This was an issue to which Stephen Haseler was always particularly sensitive. He often spoke of the UK as an“English superstate,” the constitutional immobilism of which contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. I should personally not be surprised if in ten years’ time Northern Ireland has ceased to be part of the UK. A “no deal” Brexit would be such a failure of English statecraft, particularly with regard to Ireland, that the credibility and viability of British rule in the Six Counties would inevitably be called into increasing question. A majority of those voting in 2016 in Northern Ireland, going beyond the traditional Nationalist community in Ulster, wanted it to remain in the EU in 2016. Scandal and division continue to plague the most outspoken representatives of Ulster Unionism in the DUP. It would be surprising if a border poll did not rapidly move up the political agenda if the UK crashes out of the EU in 2019 and a hard border has to be re- established between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Even if there is a consensual Withdrawal Agreement, it can only be conditional upon an Irish backstop that will ensure that in significant ways Northern Ireland is more fully integrated into the economic life of the EU than is the rest of the UK. This economic integration must over time create pressure for political change in the island of Ireland. Similar considerations apply to Scotland. A“no deal” Brexit would be a major shot in the arm for the Scottish National Party, and an Irish backstop for “hard Brexit” would inevitably create demands for similar treatment of Scotland. There is already a willing audience in Scotland for claims that the London government is looking to retain for itself all powers returned to the UK from the EU after Brexit. These complaints will inevitably grow in political prominence and resonance over the years of the “transition” period.
Fourth, whether it happens before or after Brexit, the present party political configuration of British politics cannot long be sustained. Both the Labour and Conservative Parties are profoundly dysfunctional organizations, which have abandoned the traditional claim to present themselves to the electorate as “broad churches,” but are rather in thrall to narrow sections of their political spectrum. The ERG dominates the Conservative Party and Momentum is increasingly tightening its grip on the Labour Party. This sectarianism is actively encouraged by the First Past the Post system, as a result of which those who feel alienated and estranged within their respective political formations see no possibility of effective political action outside the two main parties. The crippling experience of the Liberal Democrats in government has reinforced this template. But this is an essentially rotten and fragile structure, which Brexit has laid bare.
The British political system currently attempts to shoehorn six parties into three, English nationalists and cosmopolitan globalists into the Conservative Party, social democrats and uncompromising socialists into the Labour Party and economic liberals and centrists into the Liberal Democrats. When this system functions well, it certainly has merits in marginalising extremism and sectarianism, but it is a system which finds self-repair very difficult. Brexit shows every sign of forcing this process of self-repair. Present party alignments could not survive the holding of an EU referendum. A “hard Brexit” instead of a referendum would confirm for ever the status of the Conservative Party as the flagship of English nationalism. Important elements of the traditional Conservative coalition risk being alienated by that development. On the other side of the political spectrum already credible reports are surfacing of a new centrist party to come into being after March, 2019, peopled largely by Labour members and supporters who are unable to stomach Corbyn. Tribal politics favoured by the First Past the Post System bear a substantial part of the responsibility for taking us so far down the Brexit path. It would be a despairing conclusion to argue that there is no reverse from this path in the uncertainty and volatility that Brexit will inevitably continue to generate. Something has got to give and I think it will in the foreseeable future. Reality can be kept at arm’s length for a surprisingly long period of time, but when the dam is breached, the flood comes pouring in.
This has been a bleak review of the current and recent state of British politics, but I think it is one that Stephen would recognise. I have painted a picture of an immobile, self-regarding political system which always found it difficult to respond to the interaction, on a basis of equality, with other democratic political systems in Europe. This incapacity for creative political interaction is perfectly illustrated by the difficulty of the Brexit negotiations, where the British side has consistently regarded the objectively stronger EU side as being the partner in the negotiations destined only to receive their instructions once the British side had decided what they wanted from the negotiations. May’s insistence at Salzburg that the EU had no choice but to accept her ragged and confusing compromise agreed at Chequers was a particularly egregious example of this mindset, and evoked a predictably negative response. Gradually, I believe, the realisation is gaining ground in this country that the UK is dealing from a position of weakness with the EU, a weakness that cannot be compensated by enthusiastic recollections of films about the Battle of Britain. There is a saying among global trade negotiators that the world is divided between cannibals and lunch. The UK may be finding painfully that leaving the protection of the cannibals has condemned it to become lunch. It was certainly Stephen’s view that the English superstate was just as incapable of responding to new challenges internationally as it was domestically. I do not think that attempts to present the EU as uniquely responsible by its intransigence for the difficult course of the negotiations will carry much weight over time with the British public.
When I read in the engagement columns of the The Times that the divorce announced between the EU and the UK will not now take place, Stephen will be one of the first people in my mind. In specific memory of him, I will drink (although not simultaneously) a glass of champagne and a glass of Diet Coca Cola. Adlai Stevenson famously complained that more Americans like Coca Cola than champagne. Stephen was capable of enjoying both with equal gusto. Indeed he was a man unusually capable of passing on to others the enjoyment he derived from aspects of life. We shall not only miss his ideas, we will miss his company as well. I am happy that we have the opportunity this afternoon to remember both.
This is an abridged/edited version of the memorial lecture on the life and work of Stephen Haseler, republican, political philosopher, iconoclast, European/globalist given by the director of the Federal Trust in London on October 4 2018
Main image via Flickr for Scottish Government CC BY-SA 2.0