Joyce McMillan: A red letter day for Brexit and the Union

The well-being of ordinary people must be the main priority for crunch Cabinet talks at Chequers today '“ not the xenophobic nostalgia of hardline Brexiteers, writes Joyce McMillan
Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Westminster Parliament (Picture: AFP/Getty)Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Westminster Parliament (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Westminster Parliament (Picture: AFP/Getty)

On Wednesday morning – with the kind of insouciance some might say has been his downfall – the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, emitted a mildly self-deprecating tweet describing how he had had a “real father-and-son moment” with one of his children, during England’s World Cup match on Tuesday, explaining how England never wins penalty shoot-outs; and then how, when England did win, he felt such joy that he didn’t mind being found out as a bit of a – well, let’s not use the t-word so eloquently deployed last week on breakfast television, by actor and disappointed Leave voter Danny Dyer.

Now to say that this tweet did not go down well with many Twitter users is to understate the case. Cameron’s presentation of himself as a hapless but genuine patriot, not very good at predicting the future, provoked an avalanche of furious, ironic and bitter tweets about the not-so-jolly “father-and-son moments” many families have been forced to have, because of the consequences of the Brexit referendum that Cameron called, apparently without having a clue what would happen in the Remain side lost.

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“That’s nice,” said one of the first responses. “I’ve calmly explained to my son that thanks to your incompetence he’s not going to the get the opportunities in life that I did”; and others accused Cameron of being a coward, who had put Britain’s economic future at risk rather than confront the extreme Brexiteers in his own party.

And the point of all this is not to kick an ex-Prime Minister when he’s down – although Cameron is not down, but sunning himself comfortably on holiday. It is to glimpse the sheer depth of the political problem that will face anyone trying to lead Britain in the decade after Brexit; and to acknowledge the absolute inability of Theresa May’s divided and chaotic Cabinet, meeting today at Chequers, to play any kind of healing or reunifying role in a crisis entirely provoked by their own party and its fierce internal divisions.

It is true that 17 million people voted for Brexit, and will feel grievously robbed of their victory if it does not happen, in a fairly decisive form.

Yet 16 million people voted against it; and as the evidence mounts that the Brexit campaign not only misled the people about the “Brexit dividend”, but also flouted campaign expenses rules and accepted money from questionable sources, those who voted to Remain are becoming steadily less likely simply to accept a decision that they feel will damage their own lives and those of their children, perhaps irreparably.

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Right down to the wire, some will agitate and demonstrate and mount legal challenges, demanding a full parliamentary vote or even a second referendum on the final Brexit deal; and even those who genuinely believe that Remainers are nothing but a bunch of bad losers will not be able to pretend, in the long term, that this huge mass of appalled and disgruntled people does not exist, and does not suspect that it has been the victim of some very British kind of right-wing coup.

So where will British voters turn, in two or three years’ time, in the search for a leader who can restore some sense of unity and shared purpose after such a profound episode of division and self-harm?

Given the current state of a government which is only now – two years after the vote – seeking to agree the kind of White Paper on future relations with the EU that should have been issued in the autumn of 2016, it is hard to imagine the warring Conservative Party in its current form producing a convincing national leadership of any sort.

The Labour Party, likewise, is riven by divisions, and led from a pro-Brexit left that does not reflect the views of most Labour voters or party members; never in the last two centuries can the UK two-party system have failed so completely to give adequate representation to one side of a vital national argument.

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And if you add into this equation the possibility of sudden or gradual shifts of opinion in Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have possible escape-routes from the likely ongoing confusion of Brexit, then there is a chance that this chaotic landscape of political division and failure will lead towards some kind of constitutional meltdown, and a radical reframing of political relationships across the islands, before any kind of new stability can be achieved.

It’s ironic, in other words, that in trying to reassert British national identity, those who voted for Brexit may have plunged the whole idea of Britain, and the whole shape of its political system, into profound crisis; and it is even more ironic that May’s Cabinet is gathering for this belated and implausible attempt to map out Britain’s post-EU future in the week that marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS, a great act of vision and of political will that literally made a dream of free health care come true for the people of Britain, and rapidly became a prime symbol of national identity and pride.

If Britain as a United Kingdom is to survive the Brexit crisis, in other words, it will need, very soon, to produce a leadership which has this kind of serious progressive vision for the future of the people, and the competence and unity to implement it.

And let’s be clear that the vision of the current band of Brexiteers will not do; part naked financial self-interest and part fierce xenophobic nostalgia, their notion of Britain has nothing to do with the real lives of ordinary people, or with their future welfare.

What holds a 21st century nation together, in the end, is a series of political systems, structures and policies that, like the NHS, absolutely prioritise the well-being of the people – their health, their jobs, their environment, their dignity – over all other concerns; and if the Government of the United Kingdom does not find a way to return to those priorities, and soon, it may find its much-prized but neglected unity slipping through its hands, faster than it thought possible.