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Waist deep in the Brexit muddy

26 December 2016

Letter from London | Britain’s divisions over Europe fester in a political swamp. But there is a way out


“A truly global Britain”: British PM Theresa May on board the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Ocean, earlier this month. Tom Evans/Number Ten

“A truly global Britain”: British PM Theresa May on board the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Ocean, earlier this month. Tom Evans/Number Ten

“We are approaching Belfast. Please adjust your watches to the seventeenth century.” The air pilot’s request was a media favourite in the early years of Northern Ireland’s conflict. At the time, the rest of the United Kingdom was struggling to make sense of the “province” across the Irish Sea, sunk in sectarian animosities and petty obsessions with sovereignty, its iconography soaked in events, dates and names from (or so it seemed) long ago.

The apocryphal snapshot did the job. Northern Ireland, or Ulster, was an anachronistic backwater – such a contrast, it was taken for granted, to the enlightened “mainland,” with its modern outlook, stable polity, rational actors and genius for compromise!

If the sardonic jibe now looks as tired as those quasi-colonial terms in inverted commas, it’s also because Britain’s own recent political evolution makes it a plausible candidate for similar mockery. Exhibit A is, of course, the UK-wide referendum on 23 June over membership of the European Union, following a rancorous campaign in which slogans, soundbites and shrill TV confrontations tended to eclipse the more developed arguments on both sides. Exhibit B can too easily be forgotten, though it was a sort of harbinger: the Scotland-only vote on the country’s independence from the UK in September 2014, a contest also stamped by its poisonous tone.

Even more disheartening is that national, political and social schisms seemed to deepen, not abate, in the aftermath of both votes. That was unaffected by the contrast in outcomes. Each time, the Scots opted for the status quo, by 55.3–44.7 in 2014, and by 62–38 per cent in 2016. People in Northern Ireland also voted to stay in the EU, by 55.8–44.2 per cent. But the English (53.4–46.6) and Welsh (52.5–47.5) carried Brexit to a 52–48 per cent victory.

That rip-it-up anti-establishment revolt also shook an international order of which Britain itself was one of the pillars. European populists and Vladimir Putin’s Russia cheered, and Donald Trump’s ardent campaign was further invigorated. Much of the world was caught between aghast and amused as it observed the Brits appearing to lose head, cool, friends, compass – and contact with their own better angels – in the quixotic search for an elusive treasure.

These were also, of course, great exercises in plebiscitary democracy: Brexit supporters like to point out that the 17.4 million who chose that option represent the biggest vote for anything in Britain’s history. But democracy takes other forms, and nor is it procedural alone. If referendums as a tool can be criticised, so too can their propensity (especially in the age of social media) to turn a binary choice on a matter of national importance into a carnival of lies, abuse and stupidity.

This may help explain why neither referendum produced a genuine catharsis. Instead, the affiliations forged through the process appeared to congeal, as if waging the fight had become more important than resolving it. The wailing of “remoaners” could be simultaneously pathetic and patronising, but it was also the sound of losers floating among the stages of grief. And there were, after all, 16.1 million of them. By contrast, the compulsive sneering hostility by some on the winning side – call it Brexitism – had a menacing edge.

“We’ve got our country back!” roared the gloating Nigel Farage, about to resign for the second time as head of UKIP. The eclectic welcoming coalition included Donald Trump and his fervent fans. After David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister and Theresa May’s elevation, it was now Farage who personified the new Britain in the United States. To many at home, all the wrong people were clapping. And then Trump won. For some Brexiteers who never expected (nor even hoped for) their side to win, it was “what have I done?” all over again. The president-elect was now twice over, his mother having been born here, Britain’s gift to the world.

The successive dramas are now forever linked as instances of popular discontent and institutional democracy’s failure. There might be others to come, not least in Europe, where the ejection of Italy’s prime minister is a prelude to big elections there and in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Bulgaria in 2017. Regional divides and social tensions, complacency at the centre and stagnation in the periphery, job insecurity and fear of immigration, distrusted politics and media – these are the ingredients of an endemic dysfunction. For the moment, Britain can only get on with trying to clear its share of the mess while calibrating the Trumpian future it has helped foment.

That process has yet to take shape. The country’s mood is far from settled. After all, the result turned everything upside down: plans and minds, families and relationships, businesses and politics. To that was added new uncertainty with no precise boundaries. Everyone had to try to make sense of what had just happened while adjusting to Britannia’s new state of limbo.

Up to a point, it was easier for those who led the Brexit charge. For the main players, especially in the Conservative Party, the people’s victory against an overweening elite was a fruit of paradise. Some were veterans of a two-decade struggle against the European juggernaut, whose crucible was the John Major era of 1990–97. They, and their UKIP fellow campaigners, despised what they saw as Cameron’s frivolity on a matter of great principle. When it came, the vindication – “independence day,” Farage called 23 June – was absolute. Farage is now on his third meeting with the president-elect, who recommended him as Britain’s next ambassador to Washington. The prime minister has been granted a phone call.

The social profile of the respective campaign leaderships – middle-class, urban, well-educated – was identical. But for many remainers working in education and law, public services and business, the finance sector and media, careers and outlook were bound up much more intimately with Europe. For them, defeat was shattering and visceral. “It’s not my country anymore” was a familiar lament of conservative columnists seeking to voice the bewilderment of G.K. Chesterton’s “people of England.” Now it was liberals’ turn, to their own dismay and confusion.

This emotional gulf, accentuated by the campaign, was a social and political fact. Yet the result also showed a society split in many more ways than just over Europe. A choice to stay in the EU broadly aligned with higher income, graduate status and professional employment. Turnout was 6 per cent higher than in the 2015 general election, which had produced a Conservative majority. Those “left behind by globalisation,” it was widely said, had risen up against those “at ease” and made the difference. An English protest, with immigration levels uppermost in many minds, was also a class-based one, compounded by generational and attitudinal splits.

Equally, raw figures concealed many nuances. In Scotland, for example, passions were notably weaker than in the independence campaign. Turnout, at 67.2 per cent, was almost a fifth less, and 5 per cent lower than England’s. A clear endorsement of EU membership nonetheless saw a million voters, out of 2.7 million in total, opting for Brexit. Across an always lopsided realm, but now more visibly so, the divisions were within as well as between nations and classes – and, as in Scotland in 2014, within individuals too.

Bringing to an end the UK’s membership of integrated Europe after forty-three years is, wartime apart, the most formidable task any British government has ever faced. (It is also far from unfeasible that war may irrupt during the process, for example via a crisis in the Baltic states that requires a NATO response.) So interwoven with Europe are the UK’s people flows, trade rules, business regulations and universities that, whatever the shape of the severance package, the prescribed maximum period of two years for agreement will be hard to meet.

Brexit, like Trump, was near unimaginable until it happened, which made the psychological shock all the more profound. The government also had no plan for the outcome. So a hard scoping exercise was inevitable just to get to the starting gate: fixing the desired terms of withdrawal from the EU, then formally confirming the UK’s intention to leave. After that, there is no way back, although “transitional arrangements“ could postpone the reckoning.

The notification of departure will occur by triggering a clause of the Lisbon treaty. Agreed in 2007, this was the tortuous result of the EU’s convoluted efforts to write itself a constitution. May has announced 31 March 2017 as the deadline to invoke the now iconic Article 50. Brexit minister David Davis has said that the government’s subsequent plan – or as much of it as can be shared with both the public and European opposite numbers – will be published in February 2017. By the time negotiations start, Brexitannia’s limbo will have lasted nine months.

Between now and then, the type of Brexit the government seeks will be subject to intense politicking, notably by competing Tory factions. “Soft” versus “hard” Brexit is the ubiquitous formula; May’s belated “red, white and blue” crashed on lift-off; “smooth” and “clear” are also touted. If the linguistic games sound desperate, they are. Were Brexit a pitch in Robert Altman’s The Player, it might be “Lost in Space crossed with The Great Escape.”

In normal times, routine tension exists between the daily political cycle’s rapid fire and governance and diplomacy’s glacial pace. These extraordinary times turn it up a notch. Theresa May is reluctant to share her strategic thinking in any depth, or to give what she calls a “running commentary” on the government’s evolving plans, assuming they exist to a more than back-of-an-envelope extent. Number Ten’s parsimony leaves unsated the media’s appetite for instant answers and visible progress. The information gap is filled by rumour, gossip and avid fearmongering by an ultra-partisan pro-Brexit press.

The prime minister’s controlling style of management is a factor in shaping the mood. Her motto might be the northern warning Seamus Heaney put to resonant use during those violent years, “Whatever you say, say nothing” – including, the Times reports, to Queen Elizabeth when the two met at Balmoral, which gave the media a tasty pre-Christmas story. An unshowy resolution and appetite for work gained her respect during her six years as home secretary. After an operatic Conservative leadership race, her last-woman-standing win was greeted with relief. Cameron’s inner cabinet of clubbable chums is unmissed, but May, while similarly reliant on close aides, lacks his instinct for relaxed delegation.

The ensuing sense of interference and mistrust among colleagues and others has its outlet in leaks, which in turn reinforce her centralising impulse. After a Deloitte memo critical of the government was reported in the Times, which is on a roll these days, the accountancy firm was obliged by May’s stiff reaction to announce a six-month halt in bidding for government work. The paper now warns of “government by pique.” A rebuke of Boris Johnson over his censure of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, against which he pushed back, could presage another breach – or, if May is clever, a more temperate way of being first among equals.

Pivotal figure? UK chancellor Philip Hammond. Andrej Klizan/EU2016 SK

The Brexiteer cabinet trio she promoted (Johnson, Davis, and Liam Fox) have been giving discordant signals. Yet each is on the move. Johnson’s “global Britain” speech at Chatham House on 2 December, his first significant one as foreign minister, at least has an argument at its core. Fox, the hard-right trade minister fond of spinning bilateral trade deals in the air – with the London-based Alexander Downer joining in – is now open to a customs union with the EU if it were to include finance and services. If the obstacles were overcome, this could mean access to the single market, no tariffs on UK goods entering the EU, more latitude on immigration policy, and being part of the same entity in international trade negotiations.

The irksome Davis, winning surprised plaudits for his application, has also begun to disagree with himself. Intriguingly, he reversed his opposition to a transitional deal after it was controverted by the lugubrious chancellor, Philip Hammond, who is emerging as a pivotal figure in an underpowered cabinet.

These may just prove incipient moves toward a cabinet alignment, and a plan that would (as the Financial Times recommends) “keep Britain as close to the economic core of the EU as is practicable.” That might be through joining the customs union or via sectoral trade deals, or a “bespoke” combination of these. If so, the relieved might outnumber the enraged. Pressures are rising on all fronts. The official budgeting agency estimates that Brexit will account for half, £58.7 billion (A$100 billion), of the government’s proposed borrowing over the next five years (the UK’s recent net annual payment into the EU is around £8.5 billion). In addition, the UK’s divorce settlement for outstanding liabilities is being puffed in Brussels at £50 billion, admittedly by the EU’s equivalents of London’s headbanger Brexiteers. This is before any collateral trading and business costs.

That the domestic waters are lapping adds to the urgency. High public and private debt, a vast current account deficit, the prospect of rising inflation, a weakened currency, nervous investors, endemic low productivity, and now a rash of public sector strikes and prison riots are a less-than-ideal prelude to tough negotiation with European about-to-be-ex-partners. And then there are the permanently acute security concerns.

On the details of Brexit, everyone outside the inner sanctum – and perhaps even there – is still treading water and seeking a foothold. Yet the drift has had a fortuitous by-product. A neglected question, the legal process required to take London to the point of departure, has been able to push its way to centre-stage. This new drama highlights the constitutional implications of the referendum: for the locus of sovereignty and the role of parliament, for the non-English nations and Britain’s three million EU citizens. Here are the ingredients of a dialogue about the nature and future of the UK – one that the referendum itself failed to provide but which, by the cunning of history, its result made possible.

A vote to stay in the EU would have upheld the status quo. The thunderbolt of 23 June paralysed it. Legal as well as political repercussions were inevitable. But there was a problem. The question was skeletal: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The people answered “leave.” They were not asked “how, and under what conditions?” That was left to others to decide. Who would take the lead?

The obvious answer was the government, under scrutiny by members of parliament and their increasingly influential committees. That the new prime minister and most of her cabinet had voted to remain was partially addressed by her promoting those three Brexiteers, two to new departments. The House of Commons elected in 2015 was a greater difficulty, in that a big majority of MPs opposed withdrawal from the EU. Among them, reactions to the vote were mixed: acceding to the verdict, envisaging its reversal, pledging to defend what they could along the way – and parsing the new odds in their constituencies, in the event the fixed-term parliament law were to be surmounted and an early election called.

Northern Ireland and Scotland offered more angst. Their pro-remain results were cited by the nationalists of Sinn Féin and the Scottish National Party, or SNP – each in government – as a mandate for a voice in, if not a veto over, what was to happen next. The prospect of a “hard border” dividing the EU-friendly Irish republic from a non-EU north was alarming to both sides. In constitutional terms, Brexit was all uncertainty. A bit of Belfast advice to a visiting journalist during the Northern Ireland conflict, this one authentic, is timely: “Anyone who’s not confused here has no idea what’s going on!”

Enter Gina Miller, an investment manager and force of nature, who was incensed by May’s proposal to trigger Article 50 using the government’s prerogative (or executive) powers, without the consent of parliament. She initiated a case challenging the government on a key legal point. The UK’s entry into the then European Economic Community in 1973 had been facilitated by the previous year’s European Communities Act. If the decision to join had required parliamentary sanction, surely the latter was needed to un-join? More specifically, the Act was the foundation of the rights accredited to British citizens by virtue of membership of Europe in its successive manifestations. The executive could not cancel these rights by fiat: that would be dictatorship.

Miller and her co-claimant, Deir Dos Santos, a Brazil-born hairdresser, were joined at the High Court in London by others pressing their own concerns: the Scottish government, individuals from Northern Ireland, representatives of EU citizens. When the court found in their favour on 3 November, provoking unrestrained fury in the pro-Brexit press and forensic critique elsewhere, the government appealed to the Supreme Court. The compelling four-day hearing there, live-streamed and avidly reported, ended on 8 December. The rare full complement of eleven judges, all but one male, will report early in the new year.

The ultra-formality and sedate pace of the court proceedings were but a decoy. Under review was sovereign power itself in the UK: where it comes from and who gets first dibs. The answer forged out of war and regicide in the seventeenth century – yes, there again – was “the crown in parliament,” a formula that came to acquire exalted status in English constitutional doctrine over two centuries of domestic security at home and expansion abroad. It also proved supple enough to accommodate the tests of democracy, socialism and nationalism that followed – though not in southern Ireland, whose wresting of power from London in 1919–21 led eventually to a republic.

Brexit is the latest pressure point. The campaign for withdrawal from the EU, a decades-long cause, had been pursued in the name of near-sacred “parliamentary sovereignty.” Yet parliament had been bypassed to allow the people their say. Now the court case was giving parliament a chance to interfere in the referendum verdict. Sovereignty was splintering, making Jacobins of furious Brexiteers and persuading constitutional radicals to see the point of the ancien régime. The very contradictions were another gauge of the earthquake.

The Olympian scholar Vernon Bogdanor once gave a pithy summary of the British constitution: “What the Queen in Parliament enacts, is law.” His revision, buried in the Financial Times on 10 December and eclipsed by Niall Ferguson’s histrionic reversal over Brexit the same weekend, is a hold-the-front-page moment:

It is a weakness in the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty that some decisions are so fundamental that a decision by parliament alone does not yield legitimacy for them. This is especially so with decisions to transfer the legislative powers of parliament upwards to the EU or downwards to devolved bodies. It is coming to be a convention of the constitution that such decisions need to be validated by referendum.


Europe has been responsible for the introduction of a new principle into the British constitution: that of the sovereignty of the people. This, in practice if not in law, supersedes the sovereignty of parliament.

Such adaptive reasoning perfectly matches the character of its object. The UK is not committed to any extraneous value or ideal, certainly not democracy (though that’s de rigueur). It exists to keep the show on the road. Nor does it have a foundational moment. Note that Bogdanor is not arguing that the “sovereignty of the people” means that the people are sovereign. In his artful formulation, the elastic constitution has ontological primacy.

Within that, anything is conceivable. The state’s impervious hardware is compatible with infinitely permissive software. In the last degree, a national “sovereignty of the people” articulated against it, as in Scotland in 2014, has a chance. But just as great swathes of the world were once accommodated “into the British constitution” (Bogdanor’s first vital phrase), as for forty-three years was Europe, so too can Brexit be.

Bogdanor’s diffident pronunciamento invites the question: who decides what goes “into the British constitution”? His second vital phrase suggests the answer: “in practice if not in law.” The words ring like cathedral bells across a rolling English landscape. Political emergencies, new governments, even revolutions (and Brexit is a kind of revolution): they decide, or at least initiate. The landmark documents and statutes, institutions and rituals are the bones – the constitution is less unwritten than excessively written – but “practice” is the tissue.

In this context, the UK’s Supreme Court is a “false friend,” having little in common with its American non-counterpart. Its word is not law: parliament, should it want to, can ignore it. Its decisions can also be referred for clarification to the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, especially where issues of EU law arise that are germane to the outcome of the case. A judgement against the crown might pose an exquisite predicament.

The fact that the court is so recent confirms the point: it was founded under a 2005 act, following the burst of reforms that set up new parliamentary bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and opened in 2009. Its predecessor, the law lords, was established only in 1876. This is a state both in thrall to the past and hooked on overhaul. Constitutionally, Britain tends to walk backwards into the future, treating change at once as saviour and peril.

Britain’s constitutional “silo,” then, is far from watertight. Arguments about sovereignty and rights often resemble politics – and theatre – in another guise. That was clear during the two court hearings, with the legal clash over whether Article 50 could be invoked without parliamentary consent also waged fiercely outside.

The government chose the moment to open a new front. Having in October pledged a “great repeal bill” in 2017 – to “convert existing EU law into domestic law” prior to a decision about what should be kept and what junked – it now proposed a short motion in the House of Commons in support of its declared exit timetable. This was another device to mollify impatient critics, and a trap for divided Labour. The party added its seal to the measure to avoid being put on the wrong side of the people’s verdict, and it passed by a huge majority.

The motion had no legislative effect, no real purpose even – except for its demonstration effect on the press, voters and perhaps judges. For it reinforced a subtle shift in the government’s legal reasoning at the Supreme Court, where lawyers now argued that the 1972 act leading to European status was but a “conduit“ to fulfil the government’s international obligations. It did not actually create new rights. Involving parliament in the decision to withdraw from the EU was thus a category mistake. MPs all those years ago had not actually voted for anything that Article 50 would annul. Here was a further rationale for the use of prerogative powers. And offstage, though this was implicit, the elected chamber had just shown that it wanted to leave. Render unto Theresa, and all will be well.

There were several more recondite moments over the four days. Discussions of the meaning of “normally” (referring to London’s ability to act in certain areas without regard to Scotland’s position) and of the De Keyser hotel case of 1920 (requisitioned in the Great War by executive fiat, its return a source of dispute) were unexpectedly gripping. So was the chance to observe the steel-trap mind of David Pannick, representing Gina Miller, and the laid-back acumen of Jonathan (Lord) Sumption, who is completing a stupendous five-volume history of the century-long wars between England and France from 1329. However dry, each impeccably polite exchange had a faint political tremor: law as swordplay. But from outside, the ugly worst of Brexitism saw only a fresh morsel for its consuming rage.

It was natural that a ravenous press, hungry for news that would bring the Brexit story to life, swooped with relief on the High Court case and then the appeal. Miller’s magnetic confidence, and the fact that she was born in British Guiana (later Guyana), where her father Doodnauth Singh was a leading lawyer, were met online by sexist and racist denigration, and threats. The sad inevitability, with so many women public figures now facing the same intolerable assaults, makes this no less repellent.

When the three judges ruled in her favour, they too became a target of ire, with the Mail – along with the Sun, Telegraph, and piteous Express – leading the charge. Even by its venomous standards, the paper’s front-page headline was a classic. Above photos of the guilty men, in stark capitals, were the words: ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. The neophyte justice minister Liz Truss, whose appointment in July had caused some dismay in the legal profession, was silent for days, perhaps waiting for a steer from the prime minister, which also didn’t come. Meanwhile the outrage, tinged with alarm, grew. Even some resistive of the always rolling anti-Mail bandwagon were compelled to jump aboard. The whiff of Moscow, 1937 was too strong.

Leading the charge: the Mail takes on the judges.

This driven publication, each day stroking the sensory zones of the fearful middle England it has aroused into life, is often a mere fingertip – or punctuation mark – from outright derangement. In 2014, when profiling the immigrant Marxist father of the then Labour leader (THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN), a question mark would have limited the damage. This time, an exclamation mark might have offset it. The Mail, however, lacks the Sun’s panache, its leavening of self-aware glee that signals a performance. Both are brilliant at what they do. But while the Murdoch-owned Sun, chastened by past excesses, knows it’s a newspaper, the Mail wants to run the government and can’t help overreaching itself.

On this occasion, the backlash clearly wounded it. A month later, as the Supreme Court assembled, an editorial in the paper stated: “Certainly, our headline – which reflected the views of several senior politicians (and countless millions who voted for Brexit) – was provocative. But we make no apology for putting the vital issue of unaccountable judicial power on the map.” From the Mail, that actually is code for an apology. True to its word, the paper continued to “shine a light on these unelected courts” by detailing the judges’ backgrounds and spouses, with special reference to any European links or leanings.

The episode injected yet more toxin into a febrile political atmosphere. Yet the cunning of history had struck again. For the court hearings have also been a riveting legal forum, public education and human drama – and there’s more to come.

Six months after the vote, then, Brexit is still a story of bits and pieces: a “pudding without a theme,” in Churchill’s phrase. If this lack of coherence matches a disruptive age of fragmented politics, audiences and media, it is also becoming risky for the government. Theresa May has little time left to define “what Brexit means,” outline a realistic schedule for completing it, reveal the costs and demands it will carry, and perhaps above all, create a sense (Churchill again) of the “broad, sunlit uplands.” She will then have a job of public persuasion. But only by making her move and holding her position can she raise her authority – still considerable, but beginning to be questioned – to the level she will need.

London’s policy drift and division give an irritated Europe little incentive to engage at this point. May’s isolation at a summit of the EU’s “27+1” members in Brussels on 15 December, hinted at by an embarrassed “no mates” shot amid the pre-talks hubbub, was confirmed by reports that her contribution in the meeting was met by total silence. European governments, of course, also face their own pressing concerns. And many will bring sensitive bilateral priorities, or gripes, to the Brexit bargaining. That inclines the present crop of continental leaders – or their successors, following possible election shuffles in 2017 and beyond – towards a hard position. Wilders or Le Pen or Beppe Grillo will make no difference if they win. Populists, after all, are also nationalists: the idea of a transnational alliance of anti-Europeans, as opposed to cynical love-ins of convenience (vide Trump–Farage) is utter fantasy.

At the prime minister’s back are other populist-nationalists, though a more respectable version than any of the above. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is a highly significant other in London’s calculations. She gazumped Theresa May by flourishing a paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, in Edinburgh on 20 December, just hours before May expertly stonewalled a Westminster star chamber on her Brexit non-plans. (Her interlocutors were the chairs of parliament’s select committees.) The document proposes that Scotland stay in the EU’s single market by joining the European Economic Area, or EEA, which encompasses the EU members plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and a more detached Switzerland, a quartet that composes the European Free Trade Association, or EFTA.

This would entail Scotland’s devolved parliament gaining new powers over, for example, business regulation, employment law and immigration. These, and even more the consequent border controls with England (presently there are none), would differentiate the two countries further and thus make independence more feasible. If London refuses to consider the option, takes Scotland out of the EU against its majority’s preference, and rejects a turn to the EEA on its own account, then more Scots might be driven to support independence.

Such is the latest version of the vice, expertly operated by the SNP, that has gripped Scottish politics for two decades. (The entirely peaceful SNP’s thinking in relation to its ultimate aim resembles the Irish Republican Army’s in targeting its enemies: “We only have to be lucky once.”) Sturgeon is intent, above all, on devising circumstances in which a second independence referendum is feasible and winnable. Brexit should increase the chances, although so far public opinion has moved little from the 2014 result – a pattern replicated in the Brexit polls. Her paper will be presented in January to the joint ministerial committee that links the London government with its counterparts in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. For once, that showdown at the UK corral might generate real news.

The break-up of Britain – the title of Tom Nairn’s prescient text, published on 1 January 1977 – has since evolved from reverie to near reality. The 2014 vote, provisional as it was (as everything about the UK’s future is now provisional), seemed to have shelved it, at least for a decent interval. Two sweeping SNP election wins since then, and now Brexit, have revivified it. The claim of UK sovereignty and independence vis-à-vis Europe confirms, from the heart of empire, the logic of Scotland’s vis-à-vis the UK. If history’s grain now favours both, more are starting to believe that the last-ditch prophylactic agent to avert the latter might be an attempted federalisation.

“Home Rule all round,” a proposal conceived as a way to pacify Ireland and propitiate Scots and Welsh aspirations, and embraced by many in these nations, had its greatest traction in 1886–95 and 1910–14. Never lost for adherents, it has lately been supported by the Welsh Labour first minister Carwyn Jones and now the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. It may be “the only long-term chance of holding the UK together,” argues the prolific journalist David Torrance, were the trappings of a “codified constitution enforced by a constitutional court” to be agreed by representatives of all four nations.

At present that looks like an adaptation too far. True, the post-devolution UK is already, as Vernon Bogdanor has written, a “quasi-federal state” which, in recognising the right of Scotland and Wales to secede, goes beyond other versions of federalism. Yet its holy grail, a maximalist version of ultimate sovereignty, has been preserved, at least among its keepers. That would scarcely survive the process of arriving at a codified constitution, far less the result. The UK, if it can’t hold majorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to its version of the realm – which it will try mightily to do – could well take its chances with the deep blue sea.

But where is England in all this? That question, the plaintive appeal to a resounding absence, has never let go during the last two decades. Brexit was a kind of answer. “Relic or portent?” was the title of Tom Nairn’s brilliant, against-the-grain chapter about Northern Ireland. It argued that the eruption there was not “atavism” rooted in the seventeenth century but a local–national conflict of a kind that was becoming more common internationally. (“If only Northern Ireland could be dismissed as a wholly exceptional regression from European standards!”)

The ex–RMIT University scholar’s view is surely relevant to the English pulse of this year’s revolt. How the proto-sovereign people of England come to see their victory, what they want from it or are prepared to bear, will be one formative element in the UK’s next phase. “The peculiarities of the English” – the motif of a seminal New Left Review debate in the mid 1960s, in which Nairn and Perry Anderson took on the social historian E.P. Thompson – are still keeping their scrutinisers awake at night.

In a longer view, 23 June 2016 is a reckoning in which an inadequate deal, a dreadful Remain effort, and political misjudgement mask deeper flaws. Britain brought to its reluctant entanglement with Europe traits that it never quite overcame: transferred superiorism, lack of imagination, mental (and linguistic) laziness, sheer incuriosity. These do not fall neatly along pro/anti-EU lines, nor are they confined to this policy area. Many years of shrill press hostility to Europe, amid an information vacuum, were also corrosive of affective ties that were, outside the governing class, rarely strong to begin with. Now the accumulated price has been paid.

The EU’s legion of failings, now becoming perilous to its own future, will always be a central part of the story. But if Britain’s own long predated the referendum, and contributed to the result, little yet suggests Brexit will be their dissolvent. If anything, the signs so far point the other way.

Reinforced by those rising economic, social and sub-national worries, much of Britain’s self-argument over Europe remains inward, despite the efforts of think tanks such as Open Europe, the Centre for European Reform, and UK in a Changing Europe. The swamping effect of the referendum continues. Its two tribes are still stuck to, and with, each other. Only leadership on the issue, currently in remission, can break the stasis.

That will begin to happen in a busy start to 2017, when, alongside the Supreme Court decision and the discussion of Scotland’s paper, Theresa May begins – in the shadow of events in Washington – to redeem the promise of her own inaugural speech, and explains how she intends to implement Brexit and “forge a truly global Britain.” The government’s detailed plan and its serving of divorce proceedings will come by March. By that stage, a different kind of crack-up should be under way, especially if May signals a preference (in however coded language) to maintain a close trading relationship with the EU: namely, of the two blocs formed by the campaign and since hypostatised beyond reason by politicians and media.

That moment will be the opening of Brexit’s next phase, and the return of politics to an issue in desperate need of them. A new consensus might then be built among those who were on different sides of the referendum argument. On that basis, Britain could begin to recover its emotional balance, heal its rawer wounds, and face the multiple challenges ahead in a better condition.

Will that happen? In an article published almost four years ago, after David Cameron’s landmark speech announcing his referendum plan – “Britain and Europe: Living Together, Apart” – I began by citing the epigraph of François Truffaut’s film La Femme d’à Côté as a summation of the relationship: “Ni avec toi, ni sans toi.” Across seven decades, “the two sides have been enveloped in fluctuating tides – of politics and history, of interest and emotion, of loyalty and ideology, of reason and longing – without ever settling into a definitive resolution. ‘Neither with you, nor without you,’ indeed.”

The article concluded:

In this long-running play, “Europe” is – and perhaps always was – a convenient hook on which to hang a problem that is actually internal to the country: an unresolved sense of its post-imperial place in the world.

In this larger frame, the next several years begin to look even more testing for a Britain more confident with its past than comfortable with any of the futures on offer. Perhaps the machinery of governance will continue on its adaptive way – after all, muddling through is arguably not just what Britain does, but what it is. For all that, a country used to evading clear choices for so long may one day find that it has lost the ability to make them.

If the thread is pulled, it suggests the following. Britain joined, but never quite joined. It will leave, but never quite leave. To put it another way, this bruised country will in the end stay true to its ambiguous, moderate, practical and questing nature. But to get there requires firm centrist leadership. There is nothing, but nothing, that Britain now needs more. •

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On the side of light: Anthony Sampson at his home in London in August 1995. David Levenson/Getty Images

On the side of light: Anthony Sampson at his home in London in August 1995. David Levenson/Getty Images