It may be that Theresa May finds Tony Blair uniquely irritating – a position with which I can sympathise – but her condemnation of his call for a second referendum is uncharacteristically intemperate:
“For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.
She added: “We cannot, as he would, abdicate responsibility for this decision.
“Parliament has a democratic duty to deliver what the British people voted for.”
After all, her distinguished predecessor John Major has said much the same thing, on more than one occasion, and drawn no such opprobrium.
Let us be clear what Mrs May is calling an abdication of responsibility, an insult to the office of Prime Minister and the British people – it is that the same British people should be consulted, democratically, on the most serious issue to face this country for decades, perhaps since the War.
There is something mysterious here: why has Mrs May so determinedly set her face against the one course of action that might actually get her, and the country, out of the mess in which it finds itself, thanks to the blundering incompetence of David Cameron?
The matter becomes stranger still when you consider that her opposition to a second referendum – like that of the ERG, and Brexiters generally– is founded on the conviction that it would stop Brexit – which of course it could only do if the majority of the British people expressed the view that they did not wish to leave the EU. Brexiters bizarrely call this ‘stealing Brexit’ though how the British people (who are supposed to have voted for it in the first place) can steal from themselves they do not attempt to explain.
We need to be clear that the only justification for proceeding with Brexit is that you are confident both that it is the right course for the country and enjoys the support of the majority of the British people – yet if you genuinely have that confidence, then you must believe that a second referendum would confirm it.
The perplexing truth is that Mrs May neither believes that Brexit is the right course for the country, nor is she confident that it enjoys the support of the British people. For evidence of the first assertion, you need look no further than Mrs May herself, speaking in 2016, before the referendum:
(and note the clarity of her analysis in the clip above set against the inanity of her Prime Ministerial utterances, such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’.)
For the evidence of the second, that she can have no confidence that Brexit enjoys the support of the British people, you need look no further than the result of the first referendum*, which tells us that at the very most only 17.4 million people (out of an electorate of 46.5 million and a population of 65.5 million) have actually expressed a desire to leave the EU. In other words, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a majority of people who want Brexit. (for a fuller treatment of this point, see The Real Enemies of the People. and When simple arithmetic is the elephant in the room)
So how has Theresa May, a professed Remainer, perfectly capable of making an articulate case to support her view, ended up relentlessly ploughing ahead on a course that she knows to be mistaken, and setting her face against the one thing that might actually resolve the situation for the better?
I do know that she is a vicar’s daughter, so I would guess that she might have a strong sense of duty; I don’t know if she’s a fan of John Buchan, but I can’t help thinking there are parallels between this scene from Greenmantle and her accession to the premiership:
‘How does one make a great decision? I swear that when I turned round to speak I meant to refuse. But my answer was Yes, and I had crossed the Rubicon. My voice sounded cracked and far away.
Sir Walter shook hands with me and his eyes blinked a little.
‘I may be sending you to your death, Hannay – Good God, what a damned task-mistress duty is! – If so, I shall be haunted with regrets, but you will never repent. Have no fear of that. You have chosen the roughest road, but it goes straight to the hill-tops.’
Hannay, it should be said, has been having a good war – he finds soldiering to his taste, likes the company of his brother officers, and is like to end up a brigadier provided he stays alive. What Sir Walter Bullivant pitches him is a mission that will take him away from all that and will very likely get him killed, but he pitches it to him in terms of his duty to his country – and Hannay accepts.
My reading is that May desperately wanted to be Prime Minister but felt that in order to do so she would have to jettison her own clearly-articulated views on Brexit – so she recast it as a matter of Higher Duty and self-sacrifice: it was not about what she wanted, but what the country wanted – they would have their Brexit, at whatever cost, and no personal consideration of hers could come into it. Hence her dogged and illogical pursuit of a course that she knows to be wrong and against the national interest: it is a species of folie à deux between her and the Brexit voters, that noisy minority of 17.4 million people – ‘Dammit, I sacrificed my principles to give you this stupid course you voted for, so don’t think for a minute I’m going to let you change your mind!’
And if that sounds crazy, well – it is. But bear in mind that she is surrounded by people who think nothing of making a minority a majority, of saying the British people can steal from themselves, and that to give them a say on a matter of national importance is a betrayal of democracy; the lunatics, in short, have taken over the asylum.
It puts me in mind of Hamlet and the gravediggers:
|HAMLET||Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?|
|First Clown:||Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits|
|there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.|
|First Clown:||‘Twill not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he.|
*though you may also consider her latest word on the matter (17.12.18), which really is Through the Looking Glass stuff:
‘But Mrs May will tell MPs on Monday: “Let us not break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum.
“Another vote which would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver.
“Another vote which would likely leave us no further forward than the last.
“And another vote which would further divide our country at the very moment we should be working to unite it.”
(from BBC News website – my italics)
Note, first, the Freudian-slip-like ambiguity of ‘Another’ which suggests that she imputes all the faults she claims a second referendum would bring to the first referendum also. Then consider the words I have emphasised – a second referendum ‘would likely leave the country no further forward than the last‘ and ‘would further divide’ it.
In other words, she accepts that the first vote divided the country and did not take us forward, yet she is still insisting that it is her mandate to proceed with Brexit, and that to allow another would somehow be ‘to break faith with the British people’ – what, all of them? or just the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit, many of whom would not do so again? – and ‘would say to millions… [again, how many? 17.4 or 65.5?] … that our democracy does not deliver’. How and why would giving people a say in their future do that, especially when you yourself believe them to be divided on the issue?
This is lunacy. It must stop.