The fairy tale of Brexit has taken another twist, with the full supreme court of Great Britain affirming the need for Parliament to vote through the enacting of article 50, which would take the UK out of the European Union.

The Tory government of Theresa May had argued that a government minister, i.e. the Prime Minister, could trigger article 50. They’d already lost an earlier judgment, and they expected to lose this too. However, they won the other part of the judgment, with the court rejecting the proposition that the national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had to vote through article 50 before the big split. That latter ruling is the more important, because those are the only venues that might have rejected the referendum result. (Scotland has decided to have a vote anyway, which is an admirably Scottish way of going about it.)

This latest moment in this tortuous story has given some people hope that Brexit might be avoided altogether. Some hope. The Tories are rock solid, and the Labour leadership has — after a lot of faffing — made a commitment to vote for it and to, hehhhhh, “hold the Tories to account”, and the Lib-Dems and the SNP are the only “major” parties currently opposed. There’s already been one vote in Parliament — demanding that Parliament trigger article 50 by the end of March this year — but that was something of a political stunt. It was followed by May’s commitment to a “hard Brexit”, i.e. one with no commitment to continued single-market access to the EU.

The vote will go through smoothly, with only a handful of Tory rebels. But there will be up to 30 Labour members voting against the trigger, principally those in metropolitan seats, where the Lib-Dems — rising miraculously from the dead — “thank you, Jesus, for Brexit and Jez,” they must be saying — are charging up behind them. The Tories are drafting a bill as tight and short as possible, to try to minimise amendments. Good luck with that; the SNP have more than 50 ready to go.

The purpose of the referendum, and then of commitment to a hard Brexit, was one thing only: to preserve the power and unity of the Conservative Party, a goal that has been the motive force of British history for much of the 20th century. In this, it has succeeded, again. Pro-Euro Tory rebels are window-dressing, and any attempt by the business Tories to try to preserve both single-market access and freedom of movement is deader than British cinema (Norway has both, as a non-EU member, but then it can, can’t it? Twenty bucks for a beer at 20 below. Who wants to go to Oslo?). 

But the process bangs a further wedge into Labour, the divot for it being the now thoroughly contradictory politics of the party, divided between pro-global metropolitan groups, and a working class, which, outside of the hot centres of London, Manchester etc, is nationalist, communalist and parochial.

[Brexit, in context: an essay on reversed polarities]

The problem is squared by the contradictory character of the EU — a supra-national union designed to situate and limit national loyalties through co-operation, which has been colonised by a neoliberal banking agenda. Labour’s pro-EU faction either ignores the transformation of the EU from anything resembling a social democratic force, or are comfortable with it because of the UK’s power of capital, or because they are really now “left” neoliberals themselves. Whatever their motive, they are also determined to undermine leader Jeremy Corbyn, and his leadership.

But so, too, it often seems, is Jeremy Corbyn.

The fact of the Brexit vote was a potential godsend to him to smite his enemies within the party. Had he been a politician of real audacity, he could have used the force of the vote to drive out residual opponents, attaching himself to hard Brexit, and utterly and firmly rejecting the trade-off business Tories were suggesting. He could have committed to a communalist UK, focused on full employment and social and economic transformation. May’s sudden commitment to “hard Brexit” would have made it look like Labour was running the show — and that Labour was the champion of the Brexit people wanted. But Corbyn does not have that politics, and he does not have the personality to be the sort of politician who can cheerfully go against his own deepest beliefs in pursuit of power.

UK Labour does not only have a split; it runs right down the middle of its leader. Instead, Corbyn waffles on about “holding the government to account”, which makes him sound like he’s assisting May in the fulfilment of her duties. He should simply be screaming, “where’s the 350 million quid per week?”, the figure that Leave campaigners said would be given to the NHS, instead of sent to Brussels as EU fees.

“If that 350 million doesn’t go to the NHS, I think I will go mad,” said one woman interviewed by The Guardian, in Sunderland, a centre of pro-Brexit working-class voting. Why not just channel that incipient rage and rock the foundations? Because Brexit reveals the other side of the paradox of UK politics: the Tories are the nihilists, who will do anything to maintain power and unity; British Labour is the great conservatising force, its anti-capitalism, always grounded in Methodist and romantic notions of rebuilding true community — Jerusalem on the Thames — against the depredations of capital. This is why Corbyn so obsessively focuses on cuts to health, transport, education, etc. — even though, politically, most of the people responding to such are already Labour voters in safe Labour seats.

[Rundle: the buzz of Brexit has died, now it’s just naked xenophobia]

The decline of such, from the mini-Jerusalems created by post-war social democracy, really affects him deeply. He can’t see beyond that, to the campaigns that would rebuild Labours majority: to middle-class people, ostensibly “prosperous”, but really squeezed, and wanting a better offer, a better future (to be fair, Labour’s campaign on rail hits that spot; millions pay through the nose for crowded commutes. But even here there’s an own-goal. Middle-class, southern people want the trains to work; they don’t want the return of British Rail. It’s another northern, socialist demand, with a hint of nostalgia).

Corbyn wants many upper-working and lower-middle class people to be more socialist than they are, and he wants more precarious and excluded working-class people to be more globalist and internationalist than they are. Even if Corbyn didn’t have a powerful internal opposition, he wouldn’t be landing blows on the Tories. Some said, on his election to the leadership, that he might surprise us. Gah, that was me. Well, he has.

Well, there’s no good news for Labour. In Scotland, it is gone beyond gone, for a while, perhaps forever. In the north, UKIP is de-Toryising itself, developing a social nationalism, which can start to take Labour seats. In the south, the Lib-Dems, with their Cameron-era leadership departed, has remade themselves as the party of Remain, in position to take the sort of very middle, middle seats — like Swindon, a mid-size former railways town, now a big call-centre centre — that have hitherto been essential to Labour’s building of a majority.

For the Tories, well, there’s no real downside at the moment. The election of Trump has been a bonus, giving them a narrative to resist any notions that they are leading the UK into isolation. Where former US president Barack Obama had said that the UK would “go to the back of the queue” for US trade after Brexit — making a thing of committing to the EU’s supranationalism — new President Donald Trump has used it for the exact reverse.

While cancelling TPP, he has reaffirmed the “special relationship” (and put the Churchill bust back in the Oval Office; that bust should be set up like a cuckoo clock, to go in or out every four or eight years). That is an obvious vote for a unity of ethnos, not of abstract politics. It is something that pro-Brexit people are talking about on the street, here, where your correspondent is in Hounslow, a southern London ‘burb, trying to get out of a fog-bound Heathrow.

Well, many a slip between cup and lip, as they say here, sipping weak tea as the rain starts, and the Polish waitresses mop around you amid the decor deadened coffee chain. Nothing in the last couple of years has been predictable. But if it goes as it looks, the vote will go through both houses in March, and the UK will be on a fast-track to be alone and of itself again. And then, of course, everyone on this sceptred isle will live happily ever after.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey