Article - The Future of Brexit

At the time of writing this column, and given the pace at which events are occurring at present, I cannot predict what situation our country will find itself in, at a time when you, dear reader, are reading it. 

I shall therefore reserve any comments on the future for next week’s column - in the hope that, by the time I am writing that column the position will, one way or another have become rather clearer. 

But I think it is already possible to discern at least some of the fundamental challenges that we will face as a result of the events of the last few months. 

Whatever the eventual outcome, one thing is certain: Brexit has divided our nation in the way that nothing else has done for many decades. 

Of course, there has been a long-standing division of opinion about Britain’s relationship with the European mainland and it is equally obvious that opinion was sharply divided during the run up to the referendum. 

But, immediately after the referendum there was, at least on the surface, a considerable centripetal force at work. 

There was an acknowledgement on the part of those who had voted to leave that we would need to seek a sensible and harmonious future trading relationship as well as many other forms of cooperation with our continental allies and trading partners. 

Equally, people like me who voted on balance to remain, acknowledged the decision of the majority and participated willingly in an attempt to implement the decision to leave in a sensible and smooth manner. 

Alas, almost three years on, instead of everyone moving further toward an agreed compromise, attitudes have hardened remarkably. Large numbers of people who had accepted Brexit as an inevitability following the referendum result have become persuaded that the whole thing should be stopped. And large numbers of people who had assumed that we would leave in a smooth and orderly manner have become persuaded that the best course of action is to leave immediately with absolutely no agreement in place. 

This polarisation - and particularly the anger and abuse that has all too often gone with it - is ultimately the most significant of all the many challenges our country faces. 

For those of us in Parliament who have been seeking consensus on some form of orderly Brexit, this tendency to polarisation has caused particular problems. But politicians acquire thick skins and have to learn to live with division. 

The saddest thing is that, in communities, amongst friends and even within families this issue has caused antagonisms and wounds that will take years to heal. 

The most remarkable testimony to the depth of these divisions so far has been the reaction to the Prime Ministers’ recent announcement that she was willing to abandon some of her “red lines” in order to construct a joint solution with the Leader of the Opposition. 

At the time of writing, I do not know what the result of this overture will prove to have been. But I do know that under almost any other circumstances, an offer by a Prime Minister to seek a resolution of a difficult political challenge through discussion with the Leader of the Opposition would have been widely welcomed. I have long since lost count of the number of times over the past few decades that people have asked me why governments don’t more often try to sort things out with Oppositions. 

But, on this occasion though some people certainly welcomed the move, the murmer of approbation was drowned out by the howls of rage emanating from those who regard such a discussion between government and opposition at such a time in our nation’s history as some kind of outrage. 

Of all the many things that have saddened me about the way in which we have conducted ourselves, this new-found distaste for reconciliation is, I think most depressing of all.