A friend of mine reckons that Ex-Prime-Minister David Cameron’s plan was, all long, to extricate Britain from the EU. This theory reminds me of the similar things that were said about Gorbachev and the collapse of the old USSR. If Gorbachev had been a CIA agent, working to contrive the exact USSR collapse that happened, what would he have done differently? Very little. It’s the same with Cameron and Brexit. How could Cameron have done a better job of contriving Brexit than he actually did do?
You may say: Cameron might actually have argued for Brexit, in public. But if he had done that, then many of those north of England Labourites who hate Cameron might have voted Remain instead of Out, just to stick it to those out-of-touch Etonian bastards, the way they actually did feel they were sticking it to the Etonians by voting Out. And Britain might now be chained to the sinking ship that is the EU rather than liberated from it.
But, whether by design, as my friend thinks, or by accident, as most others assume, Brexit has unified the Conservative Party. With that observation, I move from the territory of undisprovable speculative diversion into the land of out-in-the-open truth. And I am not the only one who has noticed this.
For all of my adult life, the Europe issue has divided the Conservative Party. Until now.
The Conservative Party has consisted and will for the foreseeable future continue to consist of a spectrum of people who, at one end, are believers in various things – you know, principles and stuff – and at the other end, people whose only belief is in themselves and their own advancement. Most Conservatives are, I presume, a mixture of these tendencies.
A major strand of Conservative thinking concerns being “realistic”, going with the grain of events, working with people as they are, with public opinion as it is, with the world as it is. Get too publicly excited about your preferred clutch of principles in defiance of any of the above, and you are letting the Conservative side down. Conservatives are not completely unprincipled, but they are anti letting your principles run away with you. All political parties have to have realists in them, to get things done and get some political momentum, at which point they attract careerists. But for the British Conservative Party, the attitudes of such people amount to a distinct ideological principle in their own right, in the form of an anti-principle principle.
For whatever difference it makes, my opinion of David Cameron is that he did and does believe in some worthwhile things, but that every time he opens his mouth he sounds like careerism personified. I have not read this book, but I have flicked through it in a bookshop, and it would seem that its Guardian-writing authors believe this also.
Anyway, and to get back to the central thread of this piece, thanks to an earlier generation of Conservative politicians who, like David Cameron, were either masterfully cunning traitors or else blunderers (and as with Cameron it really doesn’t matter which – basically, I’d say, a bit of both), Britain joined what later became the European Union.
And ever since that moment and until just a few weeks ago, the Conservative Party was divided about the wisdom of this decision. Insofar as Conservatives have had principles – whether Whiggish enthusiasm for free trade and Whiggish dislike of bossy bureaucrats, or Tory enthusiasm for British political traditions and habits – then these principles have all told them that Britain should never have joined the EU and should get out, preferably right away, but failing that as soon as this could be contrived, and preferably before the EU itself fell to pieces.
However, the realist and careerist tendency among Conservatives has been pretty much entirely wedded to the EU. Working with the grain of events, with the realities of the modern world, and, in general, being a grown-up politician (rather than a silly overgrown adolescent who indulges in sincere public statements of belief in things), all of those inclinations have caused a generation of Conservative careerists to go with the flow of the EU, and to spend their lives in a state of perpetual irritation that they couldn’t persuade all the other damn Conservatives to stop grumbling and get with the programme.
Hence the perpetual and often acrimonious division of the Conservative Party into two warring camps, for as long as I can remember. The realist-careerists have been numerically far stronger in the upper reaches of the Party, particularly in Parliament. But mere Conservative voters have tended to side with their preferred proclaimers of those various principles, and to want Britain out. It seemed like this was just an unalterable fact of life. Conservative civil war seemed permanent and inevitable.
But now, with the rise of UKIP, the EU referendum and the Brexit vote, reality itself has been turned on its head. Now, both the realist-careerists and the Conservatives animated more by principles are all of them on the same side. Brexit is now the programme that grown-up, go-with-the-flow politicians need to get with.
It’s one thing to oppose all the turmoil associated with Britain leaving the EU. It is quite another to embrace all the turmoil that would follow from any attempt to interrupt or reverse the verdict of the referendum. Britain voted Out. This is the reality that almost all Conservatives agree must now be embraced, or if not embraced then at least lived with. How many Conservatives now argue, publicly, for the idea that Britain should somehow remain permanently as part of the EU, despite the crushing reality of the Brexit vote?
Yes, many Conservatives bitterly regret that the damn referendum even happened. And, the referendum having been held, many Conservatives still bitterly regret how the voters voted. But regretting how reality turned out is entirely different from believing that a serious attempt should be made to change reality back again to what it used to be but no longer is.
When I contemplate Brexit, my mind goes back to my extreme youth, when an argument still raged about whether what remained of the British Empire should be done away with. It was decided that the Empire should end, aside from a few anomolous fragments like the Falkland Islands. There were plenty of Conservatives who thought otherwise, and who regretted this decision to sail with what Prime Minister Harold MacMillan called the wind of change rather than against it. But, once the British Empire had been ended, only an absurd rump of Conservatives – they were known as the “Empire Loyalists” – then continued to argue that the British Empire should somehow be restored, and that even if it wasn’t ever restored, saying that it should be restored should be at the top of the list of things that Conservatives should be saying to the British electorate from then on.
The Empire Loyalists were, of course, ignored. It was time, in modern parlance, to “move on”. Instead, an alternative Empire was sought. Not an Empire that Britain could command unopposed, but at least an Empire. The descendants of the original Empire’s district commissioners, colonial administrators, bureaucrats and careerists and imperial goers-with-the-flow would have a new Raj to strut about in and to make their fortunes in. Britain wouldn’t have to go back to being “little” again. That, at any rate, was surely one of the ideas, however deluded it now appears, that got Britain into the EU in the first place, that being another reason to mention the old Empire in a piece about the EU.
Now, however, the Empire Loyalists are those sad souls who think it worth saying, again and again, as if saying this remains part of grown-up British politics, that Brexit was not only a mistake but that it should not be allowed to happen. Almost all of these new Empire Loyalists are now to be found on the left of British politics. My original title for this posting was “Brexit has unified the Conservative Party and divided Labour”. But, true though both of those claims are, what is happening on the left of British politics is far more complicated than merely that they are still quarrelling about Brexit. Brexit, for Labour, is but the tip of a huge iceberg of chaos. So I will set aside such thoughts about Labour for future postings here, which may or may not materialise.
I will also set aside any thoughts about what the Conservative Party might instead now decide to be divided about, now that their EU argument has ended. Further Conservative splits will surely happen.
I also have in mind to do a posting here, some time, maybe, about why, despite all kinds of doubts now being expressed by pessimistic Brexiteers, Brexit is now in the process of happening, and irreversibly so. I add this as yet unsupported opinion in case anyone thinks that I haven’t considered the possibility that Brexit won’t happen. I say: it will happen, and it is happening.