The Brexit risks multiply. As Theresa May and her team consider their options for Brexit, and lawyers prepare their arguments for next week’s Supreme Court hearing on Parliamentary sovereignty and the Brexit trigger, the clock ticks closer to the moment when Article 50 will be set in motion and the count-down on Brexit will start. More and more observers agree that we are faced with an enormous and unprecedented political crisis. It could be one of those seismic moments in history when the metaphorical political ground shifts under our feet, and everything is changed.
Western Liberal Democracy in crisis
Those watching closely the unfolding drama in Britain and the US could be excused for thinking that we are experiencing the opening stages in a major political crisis for western liberal democracy. Brexit and Trump have emboldened the Right wing in politics and opened up long-hidden but serious tendencies towards an authoritarian shift already evident in Eastern Europe, Turkey and Russia. The centre and left have been left uncertain and hesitant by movements that aim to appeal across traditional party lines. As happened in the 1930’s, this coincides with a political crisis within the governing regime.
Next week an Italian referendum could result in the fall of the government and a banking and euro crisis, the beneficiaries of which could be the populist Five Star movement. The EU is again trying to impose further cuts on an impoverished Greece while the Fascist Golden Dawn beats up immigrants. In an atmosphere some say verging on revolt, France prepares for a spring 2017 presidential election which could result in a Far Right victory for Marine Le Pen and the Front National. In Germany, Angela Merkel tries to fend off a challenge from the anti-immigrant AfD.
Britain’s Westminster crisis
In Britain, May is faced with a massively difficult situation and is beset on all sides by conflicting and increasingly polarised demands. She holds a slender 12 seat majority but is constrained from holding a general election despite a big opinion poll lead by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) until 2020. Her party is split between a Brexiteer majority of MP’s and activists in England who are encouraged by their victory in the June 2016 referendum, and a Liberal pro-EU group of MP’s who are increasingly linking with Remainers across the House. There is a pro-EU majority in Parliament, although very many are afraid to act against the apparent wishes of their voters, especially Labour where whole swaths of the normally Labour north voted for Brexit. Backed by the powerful and vociferous Brexit press, the Brexiters in the government pile on the pressure.
She is confronted with the huge unresolved issue of the referendum, in that it offered a simple choice to Remain or Leave, but not what form Leave would take. It could be the so-called “soft” options of staying in the single market and/or customs union, retaining free movement of people (and thus no curbs on immigration) and oversight by the European Court of Justice, or the “hard” option of leaving and reverting to WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules and swingeing tariffs on UK exports to the EU. Her opposite numbers in the EU threaten to be obdurate and impose a solution unpalatable in one form or another. Serious and long-lasting damage to the British as well the European economy threatens, which could impact those very people who voted for Brexit.
Some say May is deliberately keeping her cards close to her chest to strengthen her negotiating position, such as it is, others that she and her team simply don’t know what to do. Meanwhile we hold our breath.
The role of MP’s in Parliament
The Supreme Court battle, joined now by the devolved governments, will decide whether May can go ahead without Parliamentary consent or not. This is a very important constitutional question and not one just for academics and lawyers. It goes right to the heart of the conflict, since it gives an opportunity for politicians in Parliament to influence the process.
There are now increasing signs of a political fight-back against the Brexiteers. Across the political spectrum those who are concerned about the economic damage, as well as the relatively few opposed in principle to Brexit, are collaborating to force May’s hand, and that of the apparently reluctant Corbyn, to be open about the process and the options, and pressurise the government into moderating its approach.
Outside Parliament, the forces of the right are also organising. Farage continues to pose a challenge, with his ability to outmanoeuvre what is called the “Westminster elite”, and UKIP now seems to be moving towards a challenge to both parties by its approach to the “left behind” voters of Britain’s former industrial heartlands. Parallel to this are signs of an increasing authoritarianism amongst voters.
The Brexit camp is characterised by an ability to be outrageous and push the boundaries, in the manner of Trump but also of Johnson and Gove. Comment is now being made of a “post-truth” politics, where emotion and unsubstantiated allegations are replacing rational analysis and reasoned debate. So too, the Right shouts loudly and vigorously and often dangerously attacks its enemies, including institutions of the established polity, including respected impartial expert bodies like the OBR and the Bank of England, civil servants and judges.
In the 1930’s, right-wing radicals denounced the establishment before they took it over to run their own dictatorship. Among the defining characteristics of the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s was economic hardship, well-organised militancy and the ability to be “all things to all people”, putting about myths and lies and deceiving good people into unwise decisions. At that time, the centre collapsed and politics polarised, before the Right beat their Left-wing opponents into submission.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
Many liberal-minded people can easily at this crucial point in history step back, anxious and uncertain. Arguably this is happening right now. The Brexit risk is that, by doing that, they collude by their abstinence in the undoing of the post-war liberal order. In the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, this is supremely ironic.