A meaningful Brexit is dead, warns Sean Walsh, but the damage wrought by Theresa’s May betrayal is even more extensive.
So now we know the Prime Minister meant it when she said that only somebody who believes in Brexit could deliver Brexit. She doesn’t believe in it, so she’s not going to deliver it. The Heath Robinson arrangement she has proposed as her preferred machinery of disengagement from the EU would over time ensure that the UK after March 2019 would be like a small lump of rock moving in the direction of the European Union’s Black Hole. Acceptance is a much underrated and under-practised spiritual technique: it’s time to acknowledge that a meaningful Brexit is dead and to ask what further damage Theresa May is likely to have done to the long-term political health of the United Kingdom.
The Remain Establishment has generated confusion over the referendum result in order to insert timidity into the parliamentary response to that result. The confusion is utterly unnecessary. But it is the timidity that is unforgivable as its consequences -including a possibly irreparable fracture in the relationship of trust between those who govern and those they serve – will extend far into the future.
It is clearly the case that the Leave decision needed to be interpreted. But if you assume that any interpretation requires that you speculate as to the intentions of some composite and fictitious Leave voter then you are setting yourself up to fail. No such composite exists, there is no “fact of the matter” available. But this is to apply the wrong interpretative framework. What the instruction to leave means in practice is discernible by looking at the character of the EU itself. What future relationship would count as a meaningful exit from the political and legal structures of what is not a country but a project, with a stated aim (of ever closer integration)? When looked at this way the mist clears: only the most tangential relation would respect the mandate handed to our politicians in June 2016. There need be no confusion here but Remainers are suggesting that we should be like the beneficiaries of a will, spending months wondering what the benefactor wanted us to spend the money on, while it sits doing nothing in a low-interest account. In the end, because the beneficiary has spent so long in unnecessary confusion, the bequest becomes worthless, and all future opportunities are squandered.
This narrative of confusion was only ever a tactic in service of the wider strategy of neutralising the referendum result and it has worked; we upstarts are being reminded of our station. It has allowed the Prime Minister to insist on an alchemic compromise which – because it doesn’t exist, and why should it given that one side clearly won and the other clearly lost?- has codified a system of contradictions, set to detonate over the next few months and kill off a genuine Brexit once and for all. Death by mutatis mutandis clause.
But the constitutional arrangements of the UK do not naturally accommodate the disruption of a referendum. And if you’re going to have one then a primary moral, legal and constitutional obligation is to implement the result with authority and confidence. The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote that obedience is a primary food for the soul. She meant by “obedience” something like what we mean by allegiance: a responsiveness to a social order motivated by a principle of consent. Obedience thus understood is a sort of covenant-arrangement which provides a context for human flourishing. It is something more than a “social contract” theory of political order in that Weil recognises what is clearly true: that there are types of obligation that are deeper than those described in terms of contract.
For Weil if the object of obedience acts in bad faith then the relationship becomes disordered and obedience moves in the direction of servility. This is May’s most egregious error: by allowing hesitation into her response to the Leave vote she has fractured the confidence necessary for an ordered relation of obedience between the governors and the governed. The sheer anger that greeted her Chequers coup d’etat reflects this sense of covenant betrayal. She has tried to make us servile.
Which is why there can be no second referendum. The context of trust no longer exists. Trust cannot be restored by government fiat.
Politicians are human beings. Human beings are by nature restless. St Augustine wrote that the restlessness can only be stilled if we learn to rest in something beyond this world. The European Project is a misconceived attempt to still that restlessness in something called “history”. But history shows us that projects that claim to be on the side of history end up as history. Theresa May was the beneficiary of a gift. She has squandered that gift and has broken the fabric of trust that held this country together. Instead of seeing the possibilities offers by the Leave decision she has surrounded herself by a coterie of people for whom “economics” is all. They are like the musician who can read the music on the sheet but who cannot hear it in their head.