Theresa May changed her mind about Donald Trump’s border policy because “events overtook” her. She failed to lodge any meaningful objection to his religious discrimination because she was “tired”, because she’d been “incommunicado during her flight”. She held Trump’s hand because he’s afraid of heights and her father is a vicar. She had some big wins — she elicited from a man of no character the promise that, even though he believed in torture, he wouldn’t actually try it.
The arguments put forward in defence of May’s minibreak with the autocrats have been so bizarre, so feeble, so morally vacuous, so far outside any reasonable account of successful diplomatic relations, that to respond to them one by one would be to miss the only thing that is important.
A prime minister with a moral compass wouldn’t be buffeted this way and that by events, timings, optics, communications, etiquette. She would know the difference between a refugee and a terrorist, a Muslim and a criminal, because she would know right from wrong.
And then we get to what truly underpins the line taken by her supporters. We can no longer afford a moral compass, because we need a trade deal: all we can afford if we’re determined to vandalise our trade agreements with Europe — at 48 per cent our largest export market by far — is to be the nation that says yes. It is a desperately weak hand to take to the man who sees the world stage as a zero-sum business deal, but it’s what we’ve got.
Forget for the moment about the remoaners, that tiny and irrelevant minority of nearly half the nation who didn’t want any of this: consider the 52 per cent. Can this be what they voted for? To have our human decency brought to kneel at the feet of a trade deal, while our much more significant trading partners are abandoned in the service of “taking back control”?
Is there one person in this country who voted leave in order to walk away from Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community, because it’s “part of the EU” (as Tory MP David Gauke explained, wrongly, to Andrew Marr)? Is there anybody here present who even knew, before 23 June, that we would be enemies of the customs union, that we would be trying to replace one vast, mutually beneficial, broadly frictionless pact with a patchwork of country-by-country, sector-by-sector deals whose value was too trivial to contemplate? Most of all, did anybody, in that explosion of proud sovereignty, that make-it-again Great Britishness, vote to be the country that can’t afford values? I cannot believe they did.
The EU question was always too large for a yes or a no, and therefore too large for a referendum. We knew that beforehand. What we did not know — though a fair number of people guessed — was just how weak it would leave us, diplomatically, economically and tactically. We did not know, though a number of despised experts warned, how much institutional and intellectual capital would be tossed on the bonfire of Goveian pyromania. We simply could not have guessed the intensity of the Conservative lust for destruction.
Nobody could have predicted that we’d have at the helm a prime minister of no beliefs, whose course would be set by the most vociferous in her party. So the idea that May’s Brexit — so long as she is permitted to pursue it unopposed, in her ideal world, unobserved — reflects the great, leonine roar of the British people doesn’t even deserve any big words. This idea doesn’t warrant an “undemocratic” or an “egregious”. This idea is just silly. Jeremy Corbyn is in an unenviable position by the old playbook, trying to balance the demands of the remainers, who still constitute the majority of Labour’s supporters, against the “concerns” of the leavers in the left-behind heartlands (it is always “concerns” when commentators discuss the north, as if they’re hypochondriacs or Neighbourhood Watch zealots). He’s in a difficult position personally, being lukewarm about the EU from the outset, and now finding himself having to either fight half-heartedly for the least bad deal, or acquiesce to the agenda of his enemies. He works tirelessly to point out all that is wrong with May’s global stance, and the fact that only Twitter notices is one for the media to answer some time in the future, when it has calmed down enough to reflect on its duty of balance. But he’s playing by the rules of stability in a time of chaos.
The question really isn’t how it will play in Hartlepool, if he rejects the triggering of Article 50 in defiance of their vote. The question isn’t even who will speak for the remainers, if both the government and the opposition style themselves as champions of leave. The question is what is best for the country. If we spark this process with no clear idea of what good can come of it, only how to mitigate the bad; if we lack the manpower to hold these negotiations, the humility to conduct them sensibly and the unity to articulate an agreed agenda; if we have no plan B to EU membership beyond grovelling to the world outside it, then we cannot imagine ourselves the gay divorcee
Keir Starmer made a convincing case some weeks ago that to oppose Article 50 would be inflammatory and disrespectful to the vote, and all energies should go towards getting not just a softer Brexit but a better Brexit. But the unravelling since has shown it to be naive: it assumed on the part of the government a capacity for reason, a quest for consensus, and a commitment to the national interest and an administrative capability that are nowhere to be seen.
Labour’s safeguards on Article 50, suggested by Clive Lewis, of the closest possible relationship to the single market, the protection of workers’ rights, report-back mechanisms on negotiations, and final parliamentary say over the deal, are necessary but insufficient. It is not unreasonable, in a parliamentary democracy, to say that national humiliation looms. This is work that cannot be left to ex-prime ministers, the SNP and the depleted Liberal Democrats. Talking of whom, Tim Farron, also on Marr, said: “If you only talk to people who share your values on the international stage, you’re going to be very, very lonely.”
It sounded reasonable but was in fact extraordinary: our values aren’t complicated, and many countries share them. We needn’t be lonely at all.
It is time to assert a different sort of patriotism, one that doesn’t take its energy from resentment and suspicion, but says instead: this is a country we care about, we’re not prepared to sabotage its prosperity for a half-baked idea, for a politician’s projection of what “the people” want; we’re defined by our values, and we neither seek nor will accept a special relationship with a nation that scorns them; we are proud of this nation for the good that it’s done, the peace-building, the cooperation, not the bogus exceptionalism its tinpot mavericks claim for it.
We believe in the national interest. Every day that brings us closer to Article 50 arrives with yet more evidence that the national interest will not be served.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist