Some Spanish friends recently asked me to explain Brexit to them. It seemed to them like an incomprehensible fiasco and they could not understand why I had so much invested in something that was giving so little in return. My answer was irritated and spontaneous but I have since grown rather fond of it. Indeed, I think that it is probably the pithiest description of Brexit that I am yet to come across. “The trouble with Brexit,” I announced, “is that it is a revolution led by conservatives.”
“Ah,” my friends replied, “now we understand everything perfectly.”
Most of the UK Left have embarrassingly little to say on the great questions of people power and democratic sovereignty. They are happy with our democracy being rendered meaningless. Their silence advises that our democracy should be equally silent, a mouse-like pattering under the tables, for fear of scaring and inconveniencing the capitalists. If previous generations of revolutionaries had taken this dreary stance, the modern Left would presently have no great thinkers to prostitute and no trendy or glamorous imagery to hide themselves behind. Meanwhile, we witnessed the devastating implications of conservatism last night, when the Conservative parliamentary party voted to keep their leader, Theresa May, in office as Prime Minister.
Her ministers Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt respectively stressed that “she is battling hard for our country” and that “she has always done what she firmly believes is in the national interest.” You might point out that the Charge of the Light Brigade did exactly the same things – that these peculiarly neutral descriptions of her behaviour are in effect damning with no praise. Yet to make these statements comprehensible you need to possess the Conservatives’ distinct mind-set. One must be always loyal to the leader; one must take them at their word. One must be “pragmatic,” which is to say amoral, and one must remain “sensible,” which is to say defiantly unimaginative.
Outside of this mind-set, and back on the planet Earth, the decision to retain May’s services confirms that the Conservatives have lost the most elementary life force. The Prime Minister has broken every significant promise that was made in the manifesto that brought her to power. Furthermore – and this is an elusive detail that might have escaped many onlookers – her government has in all but the most superficial respects collapsed. The government currently has no majority in the House of Commons on any major economic question. This means that there is literally no government. Since securing her deal, May has been drifting through different stages of political decomposition. And now, in a stroke of nihilistic brilliance, her party has chosen to cement her corpse firmly in place for an entire year, like the dead captain that was lashed to the helm of Dracula’s ship.
But condemnation should not be heaped only upon her cowardly and unimaginative supporters. The messy careerism of her opponents made unseating her look much more unpalatable than it need have been. The same dynamic was in play as during the Labour leadership contest in 2015, which Jeremy Corbyn had won after his rivals were unable to put up a single candidate against him. If the Brexiteers could have agreed upon Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab beforehand, then there would have been a plausible alternative to May all ready to go. Johnson, in particular, now appears to be nothing other than a destabilising factor. His apparently endless, weirdly energyless creeping towards power contrasts painfully with the sheer emergency of saving our democratic sovereignty.
May’s victory has patched up the tattered insulation. The deal-making at Westminster, which is already disconnected from the mandates given by the electorate in 2016 and 2017, can now proceed without any revived democratic scrutiny and pressure. Campaigners for Brexit are basically left with no other option than to passively wait for the political crises on the continent to eclipse the turmoil at home. France and Italy are slowly sliding into chaos, whilst the populist right are likely to make disruptive gains in the forthcoming EU parliamentary elections. In Europe, the centre ground that the EU epitomises is becoming ever more uninhabitable.
For the likes of Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, the fantasy that the EU is merely a helpful organiser of trade and “jobs” will need to be forged from titanium to make it through the nibbling acid of reality. Mind you, I think that the continent could be reduced to an apocalyptic dustbowl, with a lone father and his young son trekking across the ash, before those campaigning for “a People’s Vote” would admit that the EU is not simply a system of marvellously organised, streamlined capitalism.