Monday 16 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Brexit shows there are still issues worth going to political war over'

Democracy isn't falling apart. Politics has always been about thrashing out the big ideological questions, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'Right now there's a bewildering reluctance to acknowledge that politics is conflict.' Stock photo
'Right now there's a bewildering reluctance to acknowledge that politics is conflict.' Stock photo

Eilis O'Hanlon

Most people who want to stop Brexit looked on in horror at events in Westminster last week, aghast at the sight of democracy falling apart. Surely, though, what was happening was just democracy in action?

It's a rowdy form of democracy certainly, and there are aspects to the culture wars as they're being played out through the prism of Brexit which give rise to legitimate concerns about how to put civil society back together once the issue is resolved one way or another. Every conversation now feels as if it's on the verge of becoming a shouting match.

But it wasn't that far outside the normal range of political life. There are no tanks on the streets. Pro- and anti-Brexit MPs are not challenging each other to duels. They're just arguing. Loudly and intemperately, yes, but it doesn't merit this exaggerated dismay.

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People have short memories. On TV last Friday, it was remembered how a doctor in the 1970s had offered to bump off Harold Wilson's private secretary over fears that she was out of control and had too much of a hold over the then Labour Prime Minister. The current era still has work to do to reach past levels of political craziness. Historical perspective helps.

Democracy is always a messy work in progress. Right now there's a bewildering reluctance to acknowledge that politics is conflict. Instead, we've embraced a managerial style of politics, as if all the big questions have been answered, and it's just about who gets to do what everybody knows should be done. Consensus is great when it happens, but it's not always possible.

Ideology matters. There are still big questions worth answering about where power lies, who wields it and on whose behalf, and what happens when you try to take it from people who already have it.

Even in a supposedly post-ideological age, there are issues over which it's worth engaging in rhetorical hand-to-hand combat. Indeed one of the lessons from the recent rise of populism is that ideological divides have not been bridged, they've simply found expression in new forms. Brexit is about so much more than the EU, which is one reason why the EU is powerless to solve the problem. It's about populism versus technocracy, nationalism versus globalism. Pretending these clashes don't exist doesn't mean they go away.

It's not too outlandish to see what's happening in Britain right now as a civil war, 400 years after they had the last one, and in many ways over the same question: who rules? Then the question was between King and Parliament. Now, in one light, it's between Parliament and People. As such it divides families, as the resignation of Boris Johnson's brother from government proved.

Families were split for generations over Ireland's own civil war. The pro- and anti-Treaty divide still had to be handled delicately during the 1916 centenary celebrations. As long as it's possible to settle these divisions at the ballot box, with those on the losing side consenting to be governed by the victors, the tensions are containable. They have been in Ireland, with only toxic nationalism in the North proving a serious threat to stability.

Is Britain about to go beyond the point at which differences become unbridgeable disunity?

Noise aside, there's no real evidence to suggest such a thing. A general election could still sort it out, confirming the simple rule of thumb that, if you can take to the streets to call your leader a dictator without being arrested, and remove him at the ballot box, then he's probably not a dictator.

Sadly, every political question has now become so tribal that the dilemma of whether there should be an election in the UK to break the deadlock is no longer about whether there should be an election to break the deadlock. It's about whose side you're on.

Those who don't want Brexit to happen, or at the very least wish to avoid Britain leaving with no deal on October 31, have now adopted the position that parliament should remove power from the government without actually becoming the government itself, which was always the traditional way out of a crisis of this nature.

As it happens, a general election in the UK might not solve the problem either. Different polling data suggests anything from a Tory majority of 73 to another hung parliament. But fantasies about forcing an emasculated Boris Johnson to stay in Downing Street without authority until 2022 aside, there will have to be an election at some point in the next few months and, whenever it comes, it will inevitably be about whether the 2016 referendum is enacted or overturned. It's wishful thinking to imagine that extending Article 50 indefinitely ends that question.

The only reason an election hasn't been called yet is because of a bill passed in 2010 to provide for fixed-term parliaments. There have been 55 UK prime ministers in history, and 52 of them would have gone to the country by now. It's hardly unreasonable to suggest that Boris should be free to do so as well, in order to seek a mandate or be kicked out of Downing Street as the shortest-ever serving PM.

If Brexit is revoked, leaving Britain inside the EU, then the chances are that it will not lead to widespread civil disorder as predicted by excitable Faragist populists. There may even be a great wave of relief on all sides that the battle is over for the time being.

But it won't make the deeper questions go away. They will simply re-emerge down the line, until Britain settles its relationship with Europe one way or another.

Former Tory minister William Waldegrave made that very point on BBC's Newsnight last week. Britain, he said, needed to decide the future role it could realistically expect to play in the world. His preference was for Britain to recast its ambitions as a "middle-sized country" rather than a superpower.

These are questions well worth asking. Why do Britain and France have permanent seats on the UN Security Council when India now has more than a billion people?

It's not entirely clear, though, what it has to do with Brexit. Some Brexiteers may pine for a lost empire, but a desire to remain in the EU is not necessarily the opposite side to that coin. It's often an expression of the same desire, just by different means. It just so happens that the empire to which Remainers wish to belong is the EU.

Tory Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, who was sensationally thrown out of the party last week for opposing Boris Johnson, explained it this way: "What really worries me is that Britain's stock in the world is in free fall and I'm afraid our position in world affairs is going to be greatly diminished by this."

Tony Blair, likewise, said recently: "There is no doubt that leaving Europe will diminish Britain's position on the world stage."

The pro-EU position, in Ireland and Britain alike, is not that small and middle-sized countries should step aside and accept a diminished role in the world. It's that banding together makes them more powerful. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire has been explicit about this: "Europe needs to become a kind of empire like China and the US." Are we for or against empires now? It's difficult to keep up.

Punching above its weight makes a welcome change for Ireland. Who wouldn't want that? But it's puzzling all the same to argue that wanting to be a major player on the world stage is a legitimate aspiration for us, then crying foul when the Brits want to do it too.

Sunday Independent

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