Brits fortunate political instability hasn't blown up into civil disorder
Published 01/07/2016 | 02:30
In what may turn out to be one of his last speeches for a while on the British national stage, Boris Johnson said that now was "not a time to quail, not a crisis, nor an excuse for wobbling or self-doubt". It was a very British sentiment - all stiff upper lip and keeping calm and carrying on. But the MP and former mayor of London was as wrong about this, as he appears to have been in forecasting either his side's victory in the EU referendum or his chances of succeeding David Cameron as prime minister.
For the past week, the UK has been in crisis, a crisis with repercussions far beyond Britain's shores. Some have drawn comparisons with the uncertainties and perils that attended the fall of the Berlin Wall; others go back further, citing Britain's choice to enter the conflict that became the Second World War.
Personally, I would go with Berlin, or the months before and after the Soviet Union's collapse. What defined these times was the sense of everything being in flux, of all the rules and structures underpinning our supposed stability being shown up for the insubstantial moorings they were. There was a sense of not knowing what would happen, either on the morrow, or in a month or a year's time.
From the summer of 1989, however, there was also a merciful sense of national leaders acknowledging their responsibility in such tumultuous times, improvising as best they could in an effort to navigate this dangerous, but also hopeful, new world. Above all, there was a shared recognition that there could be no going back.
Yet it is not at all clear to me that the implications of the UK's referendum vote have yet sunk in (at least not here in London, where it actually happened). Yes, there was anger on the Remain side, much of it behind closed doors. And there were sporadic shows of dissent, gatherings to wave the EU flag on Trafalgar and Parliament squares. But there was more regret than rebellion.
In general, the response was calm. Even though the result was close there has been no formal challenge; the figures were immediately accepted by both sides. David Cameron, having led the losing side, took the honourable course, his resignation to take effect when a new leader was in place. The leadership contest has already had its thrills and spills, but everything has so far happened as it is supposed to - in accordance with tradition and party precept - and thank goodness for that.
We flatter ourselves, however, if we fail to recognise that the referendum result has exposed flaws - enormous flaws - in British institutions and the way it does politics. The UK is known the world over for its stability, its constitutionality, and its respect for the rule of law. Its ministers and NGOs travel the world lecturing other people about how it should be done. We should now perhaps pause for a while and train the spotlight on ourselves.
The Bank of England and the Treasury may have had contingencies in place for a Leave vote - and how could they not? - but the leaders of the Leave campaign patently did not. The response on all sides was to hesitate, not to rush, to take stock. A vote had been held, there was a mandate for Leave, the rest of the European Union said get on with it, but there was a startling vacuum in the UK where both power and leadership should have been.
UK domestic politics, it turned out, could not take the strain. In Parliament, both major parties were split from top to bottom. The idea seemed to be that MPs would return to the Commons and pick up pretty much where they left off but the question at hand, In or Out of the EU, is one that determines the whole nature and future of the UK. How can traditional party allegiances be squared with the rift over the EU? Labour imploded because the leader's popular mandate and MPs' mandates are at odds, as in many cases are their perspectives on life. There are now essentially two parties of the left, as there are two parties - or even three, with Ukip - of the right, even if the candidates for the Cameron succession manage to paper over the huge crack. Will, or even should, this party system survive?
And what about the Union? The nightmare - that Scotland and Northern Ireland would vote to stay, while England and Wales voted to leave - came to pass. Is the divergence profound enough to precipitate secession, amicable or otherwise? Are there, as Sinn Féin has argued, grounds for moving to a united Ireland? And if not, why should there not be a proper border with the Republic? Where does England's vote leave Gibraltar with its massive majority for Remain?
The UK is quick to find fault with the quality of other states' democracy, just as it roundly condemns other post-imperial powers for the unfinished business they leave. But its left-overs are as untidy as anyone's, and just as potentially destabilising.
The UK is fortunate in the (comparatively) restrained character of its politics and people and in the degree to which rules are established and observed. If temperaments were fierier, or the rules less embedded, or if it had been engaged in conflicts that were more recent or closer to the surface, it could be contemplating something close to civil disorder today. Such a close brush with instability should encourage the next government to consider whether the UK should not have a modern written constitution, an electoral system that gives smaller parties due representation in Parliament, and a more clearly demarcated federal system. (© Independent News Service)