Tuesday 27 September 2016

Rumours of the death of post-Brexit Britain have been greatly exaggerated

British politics has become an enthralling blood sport since the Brexit vote, but it's a scary feeling when no one seems to be in charge, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

EXTENDING HOPE: Enda Kenny, who travelled to the UK to canvass for a Remain vote in the Brexit referendum, shakes hands with UK Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London. Photo: Chris Radburn
EXTENDING HOPE: Enda Kenny, who travelled to the UK to canvass for a Remain vote in the Brexit referendum, shakes hands with UK Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in London. Photo: Chris Radburn

Barely four months have passed since the Irish general election. The result of that was regarded at the time as the last word in chaos, with no obvious government in waiting and a desperate scramble to understand what the Irish people had said.

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In retrospect, it now looks like a model of stability, compared with the mess which has hit British politics since the vote to leave the European Union. The Tory and Labour parties are in turmoil, with everyone knifing everyone else in the back; bitterness and recrimination reign supreme as so-called 'buyers' remorse' allegedly takes hold among those who voted out.

Remain voters think that they have been shafted; Leave voters believe they're being ignored. Both views have nuggets of truth.

Politicians are so unpopular as a profession that there's even a grisly pleasure in watching them devour one another for our entertainment, as long as one turns a blind eye to the serious implications.

Some of the drama has been Shakespearean in scale. The hero undone by his own tragic flaws - that would be Boris Johnson. The house divided against itself which cannot stand - Labour Party, take an ignominious bow.

Those who said that there were no more big issues of state left to be decided, that politics had become managerial, have had a harsh reminder that creeds still matter. Britain is seeing the return of old-fashioned ideological politics.

Among Tories, it's the eurosceptic right - always a strong force at grass roots level - who've taken control, much to their astonishment and, possibly, terror. On the other side is the ideological hard Left of Labour who have finally wrested control of the party after decades of plotting. Jeremy Corbyn is being asked to stand down for the good of his party and country, but there's no immediately apparent reason why he should do so, since this is a moment that he surely expected and even wanted, as a chance to purge the waverers and replace them with true believers.

Labour under Tony Blair proved that it could deliver European-style social democracy, but the Left want actual socialism and see the current situation as their best chance of getting it, so why should they step aside for Blairites for whom they have an equal amount of contempt as they do for Tories?

For them to give in now because things have got difficult would be to abandon the project for which they've struggled all their lives.

It all comes down to the old question which has dogged UK Labour for decades - does it exist to serve the interests of a few hundred thousand members, or for the nine million voters who backed Labour at the last election, or the 13.5 million people who voted for Tony Blair in 1997? That dialogue has been accentuated by a flood of entryists who were able to swamp Labour and have a say in leadership elections for a mere £3 under remarkably foolish new rules.

The implications for Labour are far more serious than for the Tories, who, whatever their other faults, have a ruthless instinct for survival. Labour's talent has always been for self-destruction, and a split now looks inevitable at a time when the country has never more needed a strong opposition.

Watching all this play out in real time on TV has distracted the country from fully processing the fall-out from the referendum, and that may be no bad thing, since there's no appetite out there for making rash decisions about the best way forward; but whether more time will help is doubtful too.

The Brexit result echoes the Irish election in one important sense, which is that our coalition government misread the mood in seeking to peddle 'Keep The Recovery Going' as a slogan to people who weren't feeling the recovery to begin with, and the Remainers are still trying to talk up EU membership to people outside London and a few other comfortable metropolitan bubbles who don't feel that the benefits ever reached them either.

Sitting them down and condescendingly explaining why they're wrong is one option. Just listening to them may be a better one.

That goes for Irish politicians as much as British ones. The Taoiseach himself travelled to the UK to canvass for a Remain vote from Irish residents, who, uniquely among EU citizens, had the right to vote in this referendum. He was criticised in some quarters for doing so, but would equally have been condemned had he stayed silent.

When America sneezes, goes the old adage, the world gets a cold - and when Britain gets a cold, we risk getting double pneumonia.

The pity is that he didn't take the opportunity to listen to the views of British people at the same time as articulating the Irish Government's own opinions.

As a result, he was just another in a chorus of voices telling them that they'd never had it so good, a strangely complacent stance from the leader of a country whose fiscal punishment beating at the hands of Europe was more likely to convince eurosceptic Brits that they were right to be suspicious.

Even after the result to Leave, the Taoiseach still wasn't listening - at least not to England, though he did make a point of extending hope to Scotland that the nationalists' wish to secede from the UK and stay in Europe might find a sympathetic ear in Dublin.

That was both impertinent (how would we feel if Westminster started encouraging Galway to go it alone?) and short-sighted (how exactly would the break-up of the UK contribute to stability on this island, since it would be bound to exacerbate tensions in the North?)

He was quickly put back in his box by Europe, but an uncomfortable impression was left that the Irish had once again picked the wrong fight. If only the government batted as heavily for our interests in Europe as it seemed to be doing for Nicola Sturgeon…

That desire for Ireland to both listen to why Britain voted to Leave and to pick the right fight in the aftermath was articulated best by Dara Calleary of Fianna Fail, who told the Dail last week: "The European Union cannot be allowed to exempt itself from criticism."

That doesn't sound such a radical proposal, but it's been remarkable how little censure there's been in Ireland of the EU for its role in provoking the Brexit vote. The tendency has been instead to interpret the 17 million votes to Leave as knee-jerk xenophobia.

Dara's boss, Micheal Martin, even wrote a newspaper column last week which sneered at "inward looking and isolationist" English nationalism whilst making only half-hearted, ritualistic platitudes about the need for EU reform. Little Englanders, we can do little about. EU incompetence is a far more direct threat to our self-interest. In a week when Italian banks have had to be bailed out, it's a brave europhile who would tell the Brits that they're wrong to retreat from messy European financial entanglements.

The UK economy may crash outside the single market, but equally Europe might crash within it. There are no easy or wholly positive options available for any of us.

What has really been unsettling in recent days is not so much the prospect of the UK going it alone, but the feeling that there are no adults in charge anymore.

It could have been worse. Boris might still be in the race to be Prime Minister, and he's shown himself to be a shallow chancer who treated the referendum as a chance for personal glory and then bottled it when he won.

He failed utterly to rise to the challenge at a time when Britain needed someone to 'take control', in that contentious phrase. His inner lack of seriousness was shockingly exposed as he hid behind a newspaper column which raised more questions than it answered, not least about his enthusiasm for delivering on Brexit at all.

Panic is a natural response upon realising that the people who are supposed to be in charge haven't a clue what's going on.

Miraculously, he was stopped from getting to Downing Street. The national relief was palpable. That's why Home Secretary Theresa May has quickly become the frontrunner for Tory leader, looking, as she does, like the only grown up in the kindergarten.

It would be foolish to write off Justice Secretary Michael Gove yet, who, object of hate though he is, is a genuine conviction politician in tune with a Tory party grassroots that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit; but it's hard to escape the conclusion that he would be happy either way, having rightly concluded that Boris had to be taken out of contention.

Gove's reward so far is to be regarded as treacherous, but he has surely done his country some service in the process.

What's equally needed in Ireland right now is leaders who are big enough to rise to the same challenges, especially with negotiations soon to come on the terms of Britain's EU exit.

Ireland needs to stop being the teacher's pet in Brussels, and instead start making firm demands about what it wants at the table to protect our special relationship with the UK and to stop the EU unravelling further.

It still feels as if we're too afraid to challenge our masters in Berlin and Paris, even though listening to those who urged obedience to the inflexible, authoritarian EU behemoth has not, to put it mildly, served the country that well.

Whatever happens now, the last 10 days have been a salient reminder that no one really knows anything when it comes to politics.

The experts said that Britain would vote to remain inside the EU. It didn't. They said that the markets would go into a tailspin. They did, for a while, because that's what markets do. Then they recovered. Anyone who gets into the prediction business right now is asking to be made look like a fool as events overtake them.

That's scary in one sense, because it accentuates the feeling that no one is in charge; but it's liberating in another, in that everything is up for grabs.

The only certainty is that the crisis will deepen if self-righteous anger at the result doesn't dissipate soon. It's not the end of the world. As poet Robert Frost said: "In three words, I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

Sunday Independent

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