The undermining of Europe’s great project for peace and prosperity is wasting too much time, writes Joyce McMillan.
Another dangerous corner, another handbrake swerve, another delay to Brexit; and I guess I am not the only Remain supporter now looking forward to the next seven months with relief, yes, but also with a sense of absolute dread. Already, almost before the new “flexible” Brexit extension has been announced, the sound of people digging themselves further into their entrenched positions is loud in the land. The DUP, for example, says that the EU is running scared of a no-deal Brexit, and that Theresa May should therefore use the threat of it ruthlessly as a bargaining chip, regardless of the impact on some of the most vulnerable groups in British society. The extreme-Brexiteer European Research Group is muttering about how Theresa May must go, to be replaced by a Tory leader who “believes in Brexit” – much, I suppose, as a six-year-old might believe in the tooth fairy.
The Lib Dems are already beating the drum for a second EU referendum, even louder than before; they have the support of the SNP, who also still want to go back to the drawing-board and, if we must leave, redesign a Brexit that better serves the interests of all four parts of the UK. The Labour Party frontbench seem close to convincing themselves that Theresa May’s deal plus a permanent customs union is acceptable, whereas it is arguably the one form of agreed Brexit that is actually worse than the deal itself; they also still have their official policy of preferring a general election. And the Prime Minister says, for the hundredth time and more, that everyone should get this over with by voting for her deal, which is the only actual Withdrawal Agreement on offer.
What’s more the delay agreed by EU leaders on Wednesday night is just long enough to allow time for any of these options; and what this means is that after a brief pause for breath – or maybe not even that much respite – our interminable Groundhog Day of a Brexit debate can continue exactly as before, until one or other of these possibilities finally crawls, exhausted and broken-winded, over the finishing line of a Commons majority.
It is also worth observing that none of Westminster’s three largest parties is in very good shape to meet this ongoing crisis. If the delay to Brexit continues much longer, it’s not inconceivable that the Tory Party – the great survivor of British politics – could simply split down the middle, finally torn apart by the yawning gap between the needs of ordinary voters, and the raging retro-nationalism of its Brexit extremists, backed by elderly and dwindling band of active members.
The SNP is in a slightly similar plight, caught between the demands of an active membership many of whom simply cannot bear to wait any longer for the UK to make up its mind about Brexit, and a middle ground of Scottish voters who still seem reluctant to vote for a further round of traumatic constitutional change. And Labour – well, it is hard to imagine a party more profoundly divided, with half of its MPs now apparently convinced that the other half are not only politically misguided in every way, but complicit in the most profound misogyny, anti-semitism, and bullying.
Now it is just possible, of course, that the shambles of the last three years has in some way lanced the boil of far-right politics in Britain, and offered the British people a crash course in the positive value of open borders; recent UK polls suggest a surge in positive views of immigration since the EU referendum of 2016, making this now the most pro-immigration country in the OECD. If that is the case, then the next year may bring a decisive reversal of the Brexit decision, the humiliation of the pro-Brexit right, and the beginning of a renewal in centre-left UK politics that could just save the Union; although given the state of the two main parties, it is hard at the moment to see how that renewal might express itself.
And then there is the other possible positive outcome, for Scotland at least; in which – against a backdrop of continuing Brexit disarray – the First Minister holds her nerve, clings to the centre-left centre ground of Scottish politics, and gradually begins to see the decisive upward movement in support for independence for which she has been waiting since 2016. Indeed, if I were Nicola Sturgeon, I would now be throwing all the resources of my restless party into making sure that it goes into the May EU elections – assuming that they take place – armed with a brand new version of the Scottish Government’s famous 2013 Scotland’s Future manifesto, shorter, better-argued, and more radical and far-sighted in terms of resilience to economic and environmental change; a manifesto capable of taking the party not only into the European elections, but into a future referendum campaign based on the building of support around a serious plan for Scotland’s future.
For now, though, any possible benefits from these three years of shambolic indecision seem far beyond our grasp. Two weeks ago, at the National Theatre of Scotland’s Dear Europe farewell event in Glasgow, Scotland’s great land-artist, Test Department musician and sage, Angus Farquhar, told the story of his own family’s relationship with Europe over three generations, in peace and war; and then placed his most solemn curse on those who have chosen, in this most vital decade for the future of humankind, to spend time and energy sniping at and undermining Europe’s great project for peace and prosperity, after so much conflict.
And as we face another seven months of this ugly and repetitive debate, based from the outset on lies, fantasies, and the evasion of ever more urgent realities, it is hard even for the gentlest of pro-European spirits not to agree with every word of Farquhar’s curse; and to hope that the authors of this manufactured crisis will one day come to feel at the least a little of the pain, insecurity and fear that they have so carelessly inflicted on others, for reasons that remain at best inscrutable, and at worst indefensible.