Friday, February 15, 2019


Another day, another farce. That's the narrative. Parliament voting in wildly contradictory ways, making it clear that there is no agreement on any way of managing Brexit, is a sign of dysfunctional politics. The real irony is that the current impasse could result in the thing that the fewest people want - no deal. I shall stick my neck out and suggest that this shambles indicates something else.

There is no consensus in Parliament because there is no consensus in the country. The baleful effect of the referendum has been to take an issue of marginal interest and polarise the nation around it. It's been a disaster, an utterly unnecessary disaster. In that sense, Parliament is representative of the nation as a whole. It is a representative picture of a broad dissensus.

Let's first think about how radical - revolutionary even - Brexit is. It means ripping up and replacing the entire economic infrastructure of our trade in goods and services. It requires a complete reinvention of our foreign policy and our place in the world. It needs a re-writing of much of our constitutional law. It also strips every British citizen of their rights, protections, and legal redress given by their EU citizenship. This isn't a minor change. It is huge.

Managing a change on this scale requires careful planning (ha!), but, above all, there needs to be a national and informed consensus that this is what we want to do. There hasn't ever been one. Expert opinion and the most directly effected parties have been adamantly opposed. Public opinion has been split. The best that can be offered as assent to the change is a narrow majority of votes cast on one day in June 2016 without any attempt to gain losers' consent. That isn't the consensus needed to implement something like this. Without it, all you can ever expect is a destructive mess. Brexit has been handled with incredible incompetence, but it was never going to be anything other than a contentious disaster. It was an impossible task.

As a result, Parliament is representative of the nation. However, it is supposed to be the nation's representative rather than its mirror image. It has to act in the national interest, rather than in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. This morning commentators were saying that May's deal is dead and the choice is now between the customs union compromise and no deal. This isn't true. The EEA/EFTA option is still there, but we are also in the land of the Condorcet Paradox. Even if there is a majority for leave, remaining is more popular than any of the individual options for leaving. Deciding to remain is in our power. We can unilaterally revoke Article 50 at any time. If Parliament is to act in the national interest, it should vote to do so and then begin the immense task of dealing with the damage that has already been done. If it doesn't and the government proceeds with Brexit, then it will have done so by deliberate choice.

None of this is necessary. There is nothing that says we have to do this to ourselves and our allies. There is no consensus behind it. Politicians who argue that it would be too dangerous not to go ahead should remember the old adage about airline safety: "If you think safety is expensive, try an accident."

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