Uncharted Territory

When I started writing these essays – now well over 15 years ago – the great majority of them were on economic and financial matters, with a good proportion of them in turn being even more narrowly focussed on the central banking issues of the day.  That was partly because that was my area of expertise, but also because apart from wars, it was economic issues that tended to dominate world affairs and be the deciding factor in elections and national life.

Not for nothing did James Carville, lead strategist for Bill Clinton in the 1992 US presidential election, coin the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” to keep both Clinton and his campaign team focussed on the key issues in the election, and in most democracies, economics has tended to drive politics for much of the 25 years since then.

But not any more, at least certainly not in the UK, where political developments far dominate economic ones in the national discourse and events at Westminster are now followed more avidly and debated more actively by ordinary people than for a very long time.  Indeed the general public is possibly more engaged in national politics than at any time since the Civil War in the 1640s, when ordinary citizens discussed politics with passion and commitment through movements like the Levellers and the Diggers, and Parliament was regularly petitioned by people seeking to reshape a changing world.

This new-found interest in politics is reflected in the numbers of people attracted to politics as an academic discipline:  since 2009 the numbers of teenagers studying politics at A level has risen by about 50%, and the numbers of students taking a politics-based course at university is up nearly 30% since the Referendum alone.

Lucky students.  They are living through and witnessing politics being tested as seldom before:  the British constitution is under immense stress and the political system is being reforged in real time.  We are all learning what democracy really means, and no-one, least of all the politicians themselves, can say how matters will resolve themselves and what the outcome of the current crisis will be.

Even seasoned political commentators are left scratching their head about what happens next, after a week in which the prime minister won a new and significantly revised deal out of the EU (who had sworn never to reopen the agreement they had concluded with Theresa May), and then fell foul of a new ambush, in the form of an amendment to the government bill seeking approval for the deal put before the House last Saturday by Sir Oliver Letwin (a former Conservative MP who now sits as an independent because Johnson has withdrawn the party whip from him).

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the Letwin amendment, because it illustrates in a nutshell the unusual logic and convoluted manoeuvring that many are pursing in Westminster at the moment.

To summarise, Boris Johnson wanted the House of Commons to approve the deal he has agreed with the EU, as this would enable him to meet the terms of the Benn Act – formally the  European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 – which requires him to seek an extension to the Brexit withdrawal date from its current date of 31 October if the House of Commons does not give its consent by 19 October either to a withdrawal agreement or to leaving without a deal.  Johnson is very keen not to have to do this, and hence his hope that the deal he had just agreed with the EU would be agreed last Saturday, the last day under the Benn Act that he could get agreement and so avoid writing a letter to the EU.

But his opponents thought they had spotted a flaw.  It was technically possible for the House to agree Johnson’s deal, and for the government then not to implement it – by, for example, not bringing forward legislation to put the deal into effect.  If this happened, then Johnson would not have to seek an extension (because he had agreement to his deal) and the UK risked leaving without a deal on 31 October after all.

And so the Letwin amendment proposed that Parliament should withhold approval of the prime minister’s deal until the legislation to enact it – in other words a full EU withdrawal bill – is passed.   And as it was approved (by 322 votes to 306), Johnson did not have agreement to his deal by the deadline of 19 October and so had to write to the EU asking for another extension.

It is worth noting that Letwin has said he supports Johnson’s deal;  he would have voted for it in any vote.  But, he said, he wanted to make sure there is an “insurance policy” that if the Brexit deal is approved but something goes wrong at a later stage the government has an extension already in place so there is no possible way the country can crash out without a deal.

And so we arrive at the unusual position that Parliament will be asked to enact legislation to put into effect a withdrawal deal before it has approved that deal in principle.  And because of this, the prime minister has been forced to send a letter to Brussels asking for an extension that he does not want (and which he has made clear in a separate covering letter that he hopes the EU will refuse to give him).

Only in Westminster could this be seen as a sensible or logical way forward.

Behind this however we think there remain two fundamental facts.  First, British politics and indeed the wider British society is divided into three groups:  those that wish to remain in the EU, those that wish to leave (or at any rate accept the necessity of leaving) but do not want to do so without a deal, and those for whom leaving is essential with or without a deal – and in the case of many, preferably without any deal and so any constraints on British freedom of action post departure.

Both the House of Commons and the country are split between these three camps, and there is no majority in favour of any one of the three.  Whenever anything is proposed that meets the wishes of one of the three camps, the other two are numerous enough to vote it down – including the extraordinary sight on Saturday of Johnson’s deal with the EU being opposed by Remainers (who do not want to leave at all) and hard Brexiteers (who want to leave so completely that they don’t want any conditions attached to the departure).

This is the challenge that Mrs May faced and could not solve.  It is a challenge that politics, with its binary Yes-No votes in the Commons, finds immensely difficult.  But it is a challenge that cannot be avoided;  ultimately, for there to be a resolution one of the three camps will have to prevail.

And this leads us to the second of the fundamental facts.  It is increasingly the case that what is at stake in this struggle is the future not of the British economy, but of British democracy.

Whatever the short run effects on the economy of leaving the EU – and this is not to say they might not be significant – in the very long run, the wealth of the United Kingdom will rely on the efforts of its people, and membership of the EU is neither necessary for the UK’s prosperity (think for example of Switzerland, not a member but among the wealthiest countries in the world) nor sufficient (think of Romania, Bulgaria or Greece, full members of the EU and hardly prospering).

Britain has sundered its relationship with the Continent on a number of occasions in the past – King Henry VIII’s break in 1536-39 with the Catholic Church, then the epitome of Christendom and civilisation; King John’s loss at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 of England’s continental Angevin empire; even the departure in 407-410 of the Roman legions which signified the end of Roman rule in Britannia.  Each of them broke the link between the island of Britain and a richer, more powerful continent.  But in each case Britain survived the break, and in each case it eventually prospered.

But not implementing the democratic decision of the people at the 2016 Referendum is a different matter altogether.  The fear of many in Westminster is that if the largest public vote ever in the UK’s history is simply ignored or overruled, then faith in democracy itself might suffer irreparable damage.

This is what drives Johnson’s passion for leaving the EU.  This is what will keep him going in the coming weeks.  The battle over Britain’s future, in or out of the EU, is far from being finally resolved.