Paralysis is the inevitable outcome of trying to deliver on the politics of anger, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
Where Brexit is concerned, nothing has changed – but there was a brief moment during the Theresa May’s otherwise unrevealing interview on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that shed new light on the UK’s current situation.
Warning MPs about the risks of turning down her proposed deal, the Prime Minister told Marr the UK would be in “uncharted territory” if they voted it down.
“I don’t think anyone can say exactly what what will happen in terms of the reaction we’ll see in parliament,” she said.
“We were rather hoping you could,” Marr replied archly. It was a fair point: she doesn’t do it for the money, but May is paid to have a plan for what comes next. In too many areas, the Government simply doesn’t know what it wants.
With just 80 days until the UK leaves the EU, her Government appears to have run out of ideas for how to deliver Brexit within the parameters it has set itself.
That can only mean no-deal unless May backs down or opposition parties and Tory rebels can agree on some alternative.
The UK is desperate for this phase to be over and to move on to trade talks, for a host of reasons: to settle the issue of the Irish border and avoid the controversial backstop; to secure the economic future of the country; and to deliver on the promises that were made during the referendum campaign.
But imagine, for a moment, that the deadlock disappeared and trade negotiators from the UK and the EU were able to sit down together at the first available opportunity, on the symbolic date of Monday 1 April, 2019. What would they have to discuss?
Not as much as you’d expect. The framework for the future relationship is broad and vague, reflecting the difference of opinion about what exactly the UK is looking for – to say nothing about what is actually deliverable.
Even if the UK can get to Brexit day with a divorce agreement in place, that would only be the start of a national debate about what kind of economic relationship the UK wants with the EU. In complex and sentitive areas like farming, fishing and the environment, the issues around what happens next have only begun to be examined.
A huge argument would descend on a country completely unused to the politics of trade talks – and if you think they’re straightforward, look across the Atlantic to Donald Trump’s United States and the fight over trade with China and with its allies in Canada and Mexico.
Even now, there aren’t just two competing views of what Brexit should mean and how it should be delivered – there remain around half a dozen, none of which can command a parliamentary majority, let alone the confidence of voters.
The paralysis of indecision in the service of impossible demands is a modern political phenomenon that extends beyond these shores.
For months now, on successive weekends, the streets of Paris have been turned into battlegrounds by the ‘gilets jaunes’. Their anti-establishment movement has picked up some unlikely admirers and followers around Europe on the right and the left, who have bought into the righteousness of the protesters’ anger.
Their brand is compelling, even though the symbolism of the yellow vest has drifted a long way from the ordinary motorists who began by demonstrating against a seven per cent rise in fuel tax in France.
What, though, is the message? The movement has no leaders, but a gilet jaune manifesto circulated online before Christmas featured a slew of incoherent and often contradictory demands, including slashing income taxes while committing the goverment to a huge public sector hiring spree.
In the United States, federal workers went unpaid over the Christmas holidays and the government is paralysed because Donald Trump has made himself hostage to his own undeliverable £5bn demand for a border wall. Terrified of his own core supporters, he can’t admit that his initial claim that “Mexico is going to pay for it” was a lie, and that the majority of the country don’t want to pick up the bill, either.
Politics is the art of the possible, a truism often deployed with a sneer to describe grubby compromise and low horizons.
But it also reflects the importance when trying to achieve anything of first knowing what you want, and then having a vague sense of how to get it.
The failure of anti-politics is that it rarely has an answer to either of those demands, which is why political anger, however legitimate, rarely achieves its goal – if it has any to begin with.