Nothing is ever final in politics. Not even within nation states, let alone on a global scale. Let’s try to hold on to that fact during these dark days. When anybody speaks of the likelihood of the UK being incarcerated in a “permanent” trap by the incompetence, or cowardice, or deliberate connivance of our Brexit negotiators, we must recite this again in our heads. Nothing in history is ever final.
There is no way to put an irrevocable limit on future possibilities. Politics is just the human condition in organised form. No arrangements which are agreed or institutions which are established by any group of leaders or power-mongers are irreversible: treaties are broken, empires collapse and seemingly immutable principles are overturned. Subsequent generations take it upon themselves, as a virtual rite of passage, to reverse the assumptions of those that have gone before.
Human beings are designed to be adaptable, to survive in changing and unpredictable circumstances. That is why the most successful and enduring political systems, democracy and free market economics, are the ones that permit the most fluidity. So whatever happens over the coming months — however exasperating or momentarily damaging the outcome — it is not permanent.
It follows from this that institutions and systems which rely on coercion and conformity — which make variation and dissidence most difficult — will inevitably fail. It may take quite a long time, especially if they are adept at presenting themselves in morally attractive language, but ultimately they will prove to be unsustainable because they contravene the basic law of human development: people thrive on difference and variation.
You can probably see where I am going with this. The function of the European Union is to meld the member states — with their wildly different histories, cultural identities and economic conditions — into a homogeneous entity. The states, being democracies, elect governments which must embody their populations’ sense of identity and address their differing concerns. Presiding over them is an unelected body — the EU Commission — whose purpose is to transcend and suppress those differences. The drive towards more European uniformity and less power to nation states is relentless because it is the only way to avert a spectacular collision which would bring the entire edifice down. This rigidity of resolve will finally be its downfall.
So there is a good reason why the EU negotiators claim rather airily that they have more important things to worry about than Brexit: that, in fact, the hopelessly obfuscating and indecisive British muddle is trivial by comparison to their other problems. This is actually quite true. The difficulties presented by Italy’s determination to subvert the euro, and by Hungary’s rejection of the EU migration policy, and by Poland’s refusal to conform to the EU’s standards on its judiciary, are existential threats of a much greater order — precisely because these countries are not asking to leave. They are demanding to stay in on their own terms: effectively to reconfigure the aims and limits of the project. And that, let’s be clear, is a far greater danger to the future of the EU than our own confused meanderings toward the exit.
In other words, the other side of this equation — the EU, which is often depicted as so demonically powerful that it cannot be defied — is in much more serious trouble than the UK is.
Britain has been peculiarly successful during its centuries of stable democracy at coping with differences of opinion, conflicts of vested interests, and divergence from established convention. It has a kind of genius for dealing equably, often with amiable irony, with what in many other countries would turn into violent discord. When all this shouting and pulling of hair is over, I would be prepared to put money on the UK remaining a sane, grown-up, civilised polity but I wouldn’t be so sure about the EU.
This brings us, of course, to the domestic crisis of the moment: the appalling mess which Theresa May’s Government is making of negotiating Brexit. There are, broadly, three theories to account for this profoundly depressing situation. The one favoured by many fervent Brexiteers is that May is deliberately plotting the softest possible exit (Brexit In Name Only) because she is really an unreconstructed Remainer who is happily complicit with Philip Hammond’s Resistance Party and its army of helpers ensconced in the Treasury. This is why she recruited Olly Robbins to her own Downing Street team and is allowing him to run the negotiating policy.
The second interpretation is rather more charitable and may be more plausible to those who are familiar with her character: that she is so weakened (both politically and psychologically) by the disastrous general election result that her main priority is simply to keep her Cabinet and her party from splitting. As a result, she must make a constant stream of contradictory concessions to both sides in order to maintain the uncomfortable truce. The apparent incoherence and ineptitude of her approach are just the products of her hopelessly conflicted position.
Then there is the almost impossibly optimistic view that she is actually stone-walling in the belief that the EU, which needs to trade with us as much as we need to trade with them, will finally have to give us a reasonable-enough agreement which can then be modified over the coming years, after we have left.
The first part of this is too good to be true. This is not a calculated ploy — but it may be the fortunate accidental outcome. What we need is some kind of deal that gets the UK out of the door. Once it is, for official purposes, an independent country, the UK can alter and amend and modify that agreement in the years that follow, just as nations have always done with treaties and trade arrangements — because nothing in history is ever final.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Janet Daley is a political columnist and author. Her two novels are All Good Men and Honourable Friends.