The present Brexit situation is too absurd to
Here’s a conundrum: how do you create satire out of a situation which in effect satirises itself? Satire works by playing with a recognisable feature of its object and bending that feature in the direction of absurdity. Say the object in question is a person. Perhaps our old friend Michael Gove? The recognisable feature might be a certain calculated ruthlessness, wrapped in studied courtesy and deployed in service of personal ambition. We might then write a playful but fond (within limits) piece about him ordering a pizza and obsessing over how to get the guy who delivers it sacked so that he can get the delivery round for himself. Not complicated.
Regrettably, such flights of fancy can no longer be done with Brexit – at least not easily. You cannot bend in the direction of absurdity that which is already so luminously absurd.
The Prime Minister has concluded that the only way to leave the European Union is by signing the UK up to an asymmetrical international treaty in which our exit rights can be vetoed by the EU. Even cursory examination of the proposed arbitration mechanisms confirms this to be the case, and the Attorney General has been quite candid on this point. Furthermore, the treaty is not a trade treaty. It is in effect a system of constraints on the negotiation of any future trade treaty. The treaty is designed to dissolve the benefits of being outside the EU while at the same time intensifying our obligations of membership. Bizarrely -and brazenly- she calls this a” withdrawal agreement”- a linguistic contortion that has acquired the uncritical approval of the entire commentator class (who to be fair have not biased themselves by troubling to read it). Insofar as this is an agreement at all, it is the agreement of a hostage with his captor: a Stockholm Syndrome (non) Brexit.
We have now had the unedifying spectacle of the European Union (a system of laws, apparently) using the back of a fag packet to come up with an extension to our incarceration after a late- night European Council jamboree. A jolly from which, incidentally, the Prime Minister was turfed out Assange-style so the future of the country whose national humiliation she so robotically embodies could be decided behind closed doors. Our parole has been revoked. A consequence of this is that a government which has moved the least well off onto the byzantine system of universal credits so that they can learn the art of budgeting, will be spending upwards of £100m on an election in which it is intended that those elected will not take their seats.
Satirise all that if you can. The absurdities here have become embedded in the process itself. There is no need for any comedically creative input on the part of anyone describing this situation. A literal description of what’s going on could hardly fail to be at least sub-Swiftian.
So, let’s be clear: any future strategy for resolving this situation will emerge from a context of near-farce.
The Soubry-Grieve-Wollaston axis of idiocy argues that the current impasse requires that the Brexit issue be put back to the people. The fact that they have worked tirelessly to create that impasse does not dent their (dare I say) Gallic sense of infallibility on this point. They are like the managers of a protection racket who break your shop windows and then suggest that you might want to pay them “insurance” to prevent it happening again. When you suggest to these parliamentary pygmies that their energies might be better directed at delivering the Brexit their constituents voted for, they prate about their “consciences”, posture over their “judgment” (which they seem to think they “owe” us, Lord knows why they think we would cash that debt) and reach for their heavily annotated copy of Edmund Burke. But Burke was, unlike them, a consummate parliamentarian and a genuine conservative who recognised that our institutions of government have gradually accrued to themselves the better judgment of generations, and that our political order is more easily shattered than preserved. The absurdities that have made Brexit satire so difficult are the direct consequence of the machinations of these people and are serving to dismantle those institutions by destroying our trust in them.
And therefore, the call for a “People’s Vote” is not simply mistaken but misconceived. For a referendum to be a legitimate expression of popular will, rather than a grubby political fix, it is necessary that the institutions that deliver it are trusted. A second referendum is impossible not because it would be divisive, although that is true. Nor because it wouldn’t settle things decisively, although that is also true. These are valid objections but derivative ones. A second referendum is impossible because the framework of trust that would bind the process together has been coroded by the absurd decisions that have been allowed to unfold over nearly three years.
This is not to argue that a single referendum can never undo the result of a first referendum. Democracy is a process, and not a time-slice. But the referendum of 2016 emerged from a set of legitimate political institutions and was then (via the decision to invoke Article 50 and the instantiation of the Withdrawal Act) absorbed back into the legitimate political process.
That legitimacy no longer exists because of a slow-motion coup d’état effected by the political class itself. Soubry-Grieve-Bercow et al have made a second referendum a metaphysical impossibility by their actions in this specific case. They have manoeuvred a second referendum onto the political agenda but only at the cost of making that referendum illegitimate before the question is even posed. They are attempting to confiscate every vote, leave or remain, that was cast in June 2016.
Our political system cannot be both absurd and trustworthy at the same time. These are very dangerous days. The death of satire would be sad; the death of the democratic process would be tragic. There may well be a connection between the two.