Nothing humiliates quite like the sympathy of foreigners.
When you are overseas in times of acute national anguish, even the slenderest shard of sympathy can pierce the heart. It is far preferable that your hosts be blunt. Candour stings but pity burns.
I spent last week in Israel, land of unwieldy coalitions and unstable governments. Wednesday past, the defence minister resigned and pulled his party out of the ruling alliance. The education minister immediately demanded his job and threatened to walk away — and throw the government into minority status — if he didn’t get it. The finance minister said let’s just have an election, leaving the prime minister desperately assuring the public everything was fine, like the estate agent for a burning building.
This is how Israeli politics works; rolling chaos is the norm. What Israelis I spoke to could not fathom is how reserved, stiff-upper-lip Blighty had got itself into such a state over Brexit. Few railed for or against us leaving the EU — that was our affair. What they struggled with was the system-wide nervous breakdown gripping the British political class. The whole thing was a ‘balagan’, one interlocutor told me in Hebrew — a complete and utter mess.
The Brexit balagan is embarrassing viewed from Jerusalem; observed from within these shores, it is downright infuriating. Never before has the UK been let down so spectacularly by every leader of significance at the same time over the same issue. Politicians have finally put their differences aside to come together and fail the country in unison.
David Cameron, who considered his Eurosceptic backbenchers yoyo-eyed loonballs, nonetheless promised them a referendum on Europe. He assured his Cabinet that he would win enough concessions from Angela Merkel to keep Britain inside the bloc.
Instead he returned to Westminster empty-handed, lost the referendum, then pottered off to his shed and from there to various lucrative speaking engagements where international businessmen chew glumly on overcooked chicken and regret not having pushed the boat out and booked Tony Blair instead.
Theresa May, a Remainer, has spent the last two years leading on Brexiteers by pretending to be one of them. Inevitably, she has produced a draft agreement with the EU that satisfies no one.
Jeremy Corbyn, a Brexiteer, has spent the last two years leading on Remainers despite not even pretending to be one of them. Labour MPs went along with it for reasons of principle — the principal reason being that they rather like their jobs and didn’t want to have to find new ones.
Nicola Sturgeon treated Brexit as just another opportunity to push the separatist agenda. As long as this First Minister remains in Bute House, the national interest will place a distant second to the interests of nationalism.
Political partisans are ninth dan black belts in assigning blame but the truth is that every party shares responsibility for this fiasco. To different degrees, of course, but no one emerges with clean hands.
Brexiteers fashioned a swashbuckling fantasy of Britannia ruling the waves once more. They spent so long agitating for an impossible Brexit, they cannot accept a plausible one. Instead of reflecting on their culpability for our present tribulations, they are crying betrayal and making it more difficult to strike a deal that will satisfy the country as a whole — Leave and Remain voters alike.
For years, Remainers studiously avoided the subjects of Europe and immigration and, when it came to it, they had no clue how to communicate with the public about their concerns. Brexiteers had a free run at millions of voters and Remainers found, to their surprise, that calling the electorate racists, fools and Russian stooges was a suboptimal public relations strategy. Politicians and pundits have been unable to hide their contempt for Brexit or, indeed, those who voted for it. In some political circles, democracy has become a dirty word.
In the middle of this warring inadequacy stand the voters — bewildered, bemused and increasingly angry.
Whether you voted Leave or Remain, whether you are Tory, Labour or SNP, we are led by five-a-side Sunday midfielders passing themselves off as premier league strikers and tripping over their own feet every chance they get at the ball.
In resigning from the government earlier this month, transport minister Jo Johnson compared Brexit to the Suez crisis. It was an unwittingly generous parallel. Suez was a moment of national indignity but even at the time there were obvious successors to Anthony Eden — the Tories’ Harold Macmillan and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell — who were capable of restoring relations with the United States and repairing alliances in the Arab world.
The Brexit mortification brings no such comfort. Study the rows of either side of the House of Commons and you will encounter no evident candidate to bring order to the current turmoil and revive Britain’s standing in the world. This generation of the political class is finished. Our next great prime minister might not even have stood for parliament yet.
In this febrile climate, the soil is being seeded for an ugly growth — a demagogic figure or movement capable of exploiting tumult and disillusionment with the electoral mainstream. Perhaps that will be Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Perhaps it will be someone even more sinister. If we have learned anything from the past few years, it is that, actually, it can happen here.
To avoid that eventuality, different shades of opinion must acknowledge the grey areas in which compromise can be struck. The will of the people is that the UK leave the European Union. Beyond that, there is scope for level heads to meet in the middle. Mrs May’s draft agreement is just that and she should be given leeway to revise out the more troubling details of the document.
Those who refuse to give her that chance, who agitate for division to further their own personal and political advancement, richly deserve the contempt in which most voters will hold them.
Even if the centre holds at Westminster, an alternative brand of separatism will rear its head again north of the border.
The Scottish political establishment and what passes for an intellectual vanguard these days will doubtless re-sound the trumpet for independence. Those, that is, who gave it a rest in the first place. They will insist the lesson of Brexit is that Scotland needs to abandon a sinking ship while it still can.
Do not believe them. Independence is not a life raft; it is heading down into steerage as every other passenger runs in the opposite direction and stubbornly bolting the door behind you. It will take titanic levels of self-delusion to marshal the current climate into a case for seceding from another political and economic union but Nicola Sturgeon has oceans of the stuff.
The SNP leader was offered a meeting on the Brexit deal but rejected it, saying she ‘wasn’t prepared to cancel my constituency commitments at such short notice’. If Theresa May achieves nothing else in office, she will at least have reminded Nicola Sturgeon of the existence of Govanhill.
Sturgeon’s contention is that nationalist projects are so costly and impractical that it is essential for Scotland to embark on another one of them. Merely to state the logic of the First Minister’s position is to ridicule it.
The Brexiteers have learned to their dewey-eyed wonder that, no, Brussels wasn’t bluffing. It really is willing to sustain economic pain to protect the political project of ever closer union. The UK now knows what it must do should Scotland ever vote for independence: set financial considerations aside and punish Scotland to deter Wales and Northern Ireland from following in its path.
In pushing for ‘Scexit’, Nicola Sturgeon would lead Scotland into the torture chamber. Only a true connoisseur of chaos could survey this hectic moment and resolve that what is needed is more uncertainty and upheaval.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.