The Dividing Line

Monday, 27 May 2019

It’s about as stark an image as you could create with a map and some colours. Produced by the BBC it shows the political parties that came first in counties of the United Kingdom in last week’s elections to the European Parliament. To the South of the Scotto-English border the turquoise-blue of Brexit blankets the majority of the map. To the north of that line it is nowhere to be seen and the yellow of the SNP virtually sweeps the board. It is an image of a divided polity as clear in its implications as Hadrian’s Wall.

Drill down into the details of the results announced last night, however, and that sense of deep division is replicated across the nation. For all Farage’s tub-thumping bravado, parties avowedly dedicated to remaining in the European Union gained a larger proportion of the public vote than those committed to Brexit - at least, the form of Brexit espoused by Farage and the further-right members of the crumbling Conservative Party. Perhaps those four words - ‘the form of Brexit’ - do more to explain the polarisation of the British body politic over Brexit than anything else.

In those four words lie the problem with the question asked in the referendum of 2016. Airbrushed out of history has been the variety of future relationships, envisaged by supporters of the Leave campaign, between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Farage himself, at that time, seemed a big fan of the arrangements between Norway and the EU. Others suggested Norway-plus-three, Switzerland-plus-one or Canada-times-two-divided-by-the-square-root-of-the-Faroe-Islands. In short, by being vague about what Brexit would actually mean it could be presented as all things to all men. You could ride the unicorn of your choice.

In the event the UK electorate as a whole voted by the slenderest of majorities to leave. That Scotland voted by a wide margin to remain lies behind that stark division between yellow and turquoise. Across the UK the vote was very close. If that closeness had been respected then there may have been space for compromise. There may have been a way to fashion a form of Brexit that could be tholed by both sides - perhaps, even, bringing about the best of both worlds. The enmity that has grown into a screaming match across the divide, with cries of “Traitors!” filling the public square might have been avoided. More milk-shakes might actually have been drunk.

That that didn’t happen can be laid fairly and squarely at the doorsteps of our right-wing news media. Yes, I’m looking at you, Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph. In their columns, and echoed in their claques on the Conservative back benches that vote to Leave that was won with the slightest of slender majorities was parlayed into the unwavering will of the overwhelming majority of the British People for the harshest, starkest, most brutally self-harming form of Brexit imaginable: no customs union, no single market, no fudges, no deals. It was as if Brexit was some mark of national virility that would be failed were we to compromise.

So for a proportion of the population it was not enough to leave the European Union. To do so with a deal such as the Westminster Agreement - an agreement which was constrained by virtually every red line that the most ardent Brexiteer would want for in his dampest of dreams -  would not be “True Brexit”. It would be BRINO - BRexit In Name Only. It was in pursuit of this ‘True Brexit’ that the European Research Group destroyed the deal and damned their party - and the country - to a Groundhog Day Hell of endless ineffective votes and dropped deadlines. Around the world it seemed that Britannia had become a dotard old woman sitting in a corner talking to herself about how the neighbourhood had changed and the colour of her passport.

If all that mattered were what went on in the sclerotic world of Westminster it would simply be a matter of national embarrassment  and satirical ribaldry. Among the population at large, however, on both sides of the debate, the failure to find common ground or consensus has meant that the fissure between those who wish to remain in the EU and those who want a hard ‘True Brexit’ has deepened and widened. This has become the only issue to be discussed in a country where the benefits system is in crisis and the numbers of children living in temporary accommodation are spiralling alarmingly. It has become the sole point of political debate in a country where food banks can no longer cope and where rickets rears its head for the first time since the Thirties.

It is an issue which may yet set brother against brother, parent against child, tribe against tribe and rip the country apart.