There is a sense of drift and stalemate about British politics today: A severely weakened prime minister who may soon be out of office. A public that is restless and anxious, as it becomes clear that our political leaders have failed to prepare people for the difficult decisions ahead on “Brexit.” And an influential minority still passionately opposed to the decision to leave the European Union.
After the unexpected victory for national-communitarian sentiment in the Brexit referendum in 2016, the general election in Britain last month featured an equally unexpected showing by the well-educated, liberal pro-Europeans — especially younger ones — rejecting Prime Minister Theresa May’s so-called hard Brexit of prioritizing immigration control and leaving the European Union’s single market and customs union.
But this stalemate between the country’s two dominant “values” blocs may turn out to be benign. Britons excel at constructive ambiguity, or “muddling through,” and a constructively ambiguous Brexit may be exactly what both Britain and Europe need.
One thing is clear: The British decision to opt for the nation-state and self-government rather than the supranational embrace of the European Union is not going to be reversed, however quixotic it seems to the internationally minded everywhere.
Opinion polls taken both before and after the June election suggest that around 70 percent of Britons think that it is the duty of the government to deliver Brexit. There is little regret among the 52 percent who originally backed leaving the European Union, and about half of the 48 percent who voted to remain now say that because it passed, it should go ahead.
It is possible that a sharply deteriorating economy could start to erode that large majority for Brexit, and if you dig down a bit deeper into the numbers, there is no clear majority for any variety of Brexit, except the having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too one with maximum return of control and minimum disruption. And that one is not on offer from the European Union — as the European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, keeps reminding everyone.
Nevertheless, a series of nudges and winks in the last few weeks from several of the senior British political players — above all, the Brexit secretary, David Davis — suggest that the election has left its mark and that British negotiators are edging away from a hard Brexit toward a “fuzzy” one, for when serious trade talks begin in October.
This means a much longer transitional period than originally envisaged by both sides, possibly staying inside the European Union’s customs union in some modified form, and a much greater readiness on Britain’s part to compromise on continuing payments into the European Union’s budget (as well as a large onetime leaving fee) and on some continuing jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice.
Curiously, as the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, suggested to me, the apparent stalemate election result that swept away the Conservative’s small majority in Parliament, while leaving them comfortably the largest party, may in the end have made no difference at all to the Brexit talks.
“Part of the thinking behind Theresa May’s surprise decision to call the election for early June was that it would give her a bigger majority and thus empower her to make the compromises necessary in a long and difficult negotiation in which Britain has a relatively weak hand,” said Ms. Kuenssberg. “It now looks as if the compromises will be forced upon her by weakness rather than strength.”
About three-quarters of all members of Parliament, including a majority in all the main parties, originally voted for Remain. A more pluralistic approach to Brexit, with greater input from the British Parliament, as well as from the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, is now the order of the day.
Voting to leave was always going to be a lot easier than actually leaving, especially when the referendum result gave politicians no indication as to what kind of Brexit people wanted. But according to Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Institute for Government, a nonpartisan think tank, more progress in preparing for Brexit has been made behind the scenes at the highest levels of the civil service than is generally acknowledged.
“The problem is there are limits on how much preparation you can do,” she said. “You cannot do all the logistical work on preparing for a new kind of customs union with the European Union until you know what has been agreed.”
Britain’s reputation for good government and generally getting the big decisions right has taken a battering in recent months. But beneath the noisy political infighting, and more by accident than design, we may now be edging toward some sort of national consensus on a “fuzzy” Brexit. Moreover, a Brexit vote that was supposedly inspired by a narrowly provincial England, and that was predicted to tear Britain apart, has actually drawn it closer together, with both Scottish and Welsh nationalists losing ground in the June election.
There remains one big problem: the European Union itself. Since the high point of success in the mid-1990s almost everything it has touched has turned bad — the clearest justification for Britain’s decision to leave. There was the politically overextended euro, which worsened the post-2010 eurozone crisis; the premature enlargement to the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, including unchecked free movement of people; the failure to secure Europe’s external border, which encouraged the refugee crisis of 2015-16. Not to mention second-order messes like the mishandling of the Ukrainian crisis.
The European Union is run by Europe’s brightest and best, but many of them are driven by a post-national ideology for which there is no actual consensus. To many ordinary Europeans, the cure of European integration is worse than the disease. What is the point of pooling all that sovereignty if the resultant institutions cannot save you from global financial meltdown and cannot even regulate the new digital behemoths?
The European Union is enjoying an unusual unity in the early stages of the Brexit negotiations. But if, come March 2019, we end up with a mutually harming deal, or no deal at all, Brussels is sure to be at least as much to blame as London’s negotiators, who are now more open to compromise than seemed likely a few months ago. Maybe it is Europe’s true-believers who need to embrace the spirit of constructive ambiguity.
David Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect magazine and the head of the demography, immigration and integration unit at the Policy Exchange think tank, is the author of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.