Three years on from the referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU there is still no obvious way forward. It’s therefore unsurprising – even fair – that these European elections will be treated as a comment on what’s happened since that vote, and what should happen next.
Theresa May’s handling of things has been chaotic, even allowing for the troubled circumstances in which she became prime minister. Writing this on Wednesday night, it seems her time has come.
Her latest attempt to force the legislation through Parliament needed to enact her exit deal has already led to the resignation of Andrea Leadsom as Commons leader. Rumours on Twitter about movements within the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, attempts by ministers to meet with May, and the response of much of the Tory press make it seem likely this time she will go, despite her cockroach-like record in defying political death.
Leadsom’s exit is indicative, as May’s chief problem in recent months has been an uncooperative House of Commons, which has repeatedly refused to sanction her Brexit strategy or agree an alternative. At a time of national crisis the famed decisiveness supposedly created by our first-past-the-post electoral system has failed to emerge, in part because of May’s own botched general election in 2017.
This gridlock aside, there have been what the Israeli academic Israel Shahak termed “encouraging signs of polarisation”. A Liberal Democrat campaign leaflet says that the European elections are “your chance to stop Brexit”, citing their own backing of the People’s Vote as a means of achieving this. Change UK, a group of rebel former Labour and Tory MPs, has a similar stance.
On the other side the Brexit Party has climbed to the top of the polls, claiming as much as a third of the vote despite being a single issue party. This was summarised in an interview with the BBC in which the leader Nigel Farage said “the only way the democratic will of the people can be delivered is to leave on a WTO [World Trade Organization] deal” – in other words without a deal.
Many will cast their vote on Thursday as an expression of whether they think leaving or remain in the EU is a good idea, turning the poll into a second referendum of sorts, even if the picture is complicated by tribal loyalties and the general lack of interest the British show in European elections.
Since the referendum I’ve considered myself a soft leaver. For me the problem with the EU is its thin connection to the people it claims to represent, in part evinced by the low turnout at European elections, but more broadly through a lack of shared political culture needed to make decisions collectively.
The rancour of the last few years has been unpleasant in parts, but it has flagged the tensions at the heart of the managerial style of modern politics, where those qualified to rule decide what policies are implemented in their country and to their countrymen, sometimes with little reference to voters.
The university-educated, rich and cosmopolitan in Britain were mostly comfortable with the status quo, with the democratic deficit troubling only conscientious lefties in the Tony Benn tradition and nationalistic conservatives getting the hump over Britain’s reduced global status. Many don’t seem to recognise that governors’ decisions are made legitimate only by the consent of the governed.
The EU has not been terribly bothered about obtaining this consent, and British politicians have been complicit, frequently exploiting the ambiguities of our membership. That this complacency is clearly shared by many remain voters, some of whom don’t believe the British have the right to govern themselves, has been among the most disgraceful trends of the past three years in our politics.
I thought that Brexit would come with costs – economic, strategic and administrative – and think it poor that leave campaigners rarely acknowledged this, and that they continue not to. But expecting campaigns to emphasise the flaws of their proposals is unrealistic. Remain campaigners likewise downplayed the democratic deficit and had no concrete ideas to address it, and it’s unclear how they would address the sense of betrayal if Brexit was cancelled.
I’d prefer an orderly Brexit with some deal bridging us to a fuller political independence from the EU, and for some time I thought May might achieve it. Her likely downfall during these elections make them an especially potent time for voters to indicate what they think of Brexit, and the result will affect the next Tory leadership contest.
There is much to question about the Brexit Party, which has some dubious candidates, not least in its choice of leader. Its lack of a clear manifesto is a concern, and the diversity of its European parliamentary candidates’ political views makes me question whether it could ever come up with something cohesive.
Yet it remains the only party enthusiastically championing Brexit, and calling for strengthening our democracy rather than weakening it by overturning the vote or trapping us in an unenviable associate status. For the sake of honouring the referendum, my vote is with the Brexit Party.
Image based on EU flagga, August 2011 by MPD06105