At times like this we need leaders with courage. Cometh the hour cometh the man – or woman. Yet, post-Brexit such men and women in parliament have not come forth. Quite the contrary, the great majority of those who in their hearts know that Brexit is a great folly appear cowed.
Many Labour MPs don’t know of whom to be most scared. Should it be their own party officers and members? Or are they intimidated by Momentum? And then there is the electorate, who in most constituencies voted to leave. Danger is lurking from every direction.
Most Tory MPs know that leaving the EU would be insane. They know this because many of them have their own family businesses or non-executive directorships and almost all have the ear of industry in their constituencies. But they also know that their elderly constituency officers, who form the parliamentary selection committees, voted to leave. (That same gerontocracy would also vote for the return of capital punishment, fox hunting and corporal punishment in schools, given the chance.) Further, more than Labour even, Tory MPs represent constituencies that voted for Brexit. Back in Westminster, rational Tories have to deal daily with their colleagues, the lunatics that have taken over the Conservative parliamentary party asylum. These are the zealous MPs of the right who over decades have worked for this moment in history and are very afraid of their triumph turning to defeat.
The problem in Britain with its decent, liberal minded, well-educated and informed class is its overweening sense of fairness. They have a guilt that they are successful while others are not. They seek to empathise with people. They want to be considered caring and thoughtful. They want to love and be loved. They want to be re-elected. Creating a fuss is against their instincts. So the liberals stand there wringing their hands and attempting to fathom a rational explanation for the political earthquake. As they are reasonable people themselves they assume everyone else must also arrive at their decisions in a reasonable manner. But often they don’t.
Political analysts search for narrative arcs that can explain why the public has turned against the EU. There has to be a logical reason for this they argue. The losers in globalisation have spoken; neglect of “the North” has reaped its whirlwind; high levels of immigration have become socially destabilising.
This is hogwash. Before the interminable referendum campaign began in February 2016 all the evidence was that the general public weren’t giving a moment’s thought to Britain’s membership of the EU. Survey after survey and focus group after focus group showed that the public’s priorities were the economy/jobs, the NHS and then immigration. Nobody in general conversation mentioned the EU. Nobody. David Cameron in his Tory party conference speech of 2006 chastised his party for alienating voters by "banging on" about the EU. He said Conservatives must focus on the issues which concern voters, like childcare, standards in state schools, a better NHS and low mortgage rates. He had done his homework and he was broadly right. And these are the issues that still matter today.
Our MPs need to wake up. If they are right about the harm that leaving the EU will cause, the consequence will be serious damage to employment levels and public services. The electorate’s dismay if that happens will be an angry one and parliament will take it in the neck. If you think our society is destabilised now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Leaving the EU is a stupid idea and the practical obstacles are huge. Our MPs should say so to their people and say it loudly and often. If they cower before the “will of the people” and the crazed threats of the populist right, they and the country will pay a terrible price.