The British people have spoken, the UK Supreme Court has spoken, and parliament has spoken, and the UK is now on the long and winding road to who knows where.
• Parliament has passed the Brexit bill, as expected
• Country remains divided and many Remainers are still angry
• No further hurdles expected to prevent start of UK exit from EU next month
• Reality of post-Brexit deal will begin to emerge in coming months
Heads not hearts rule the day
As expected the House of Commons passed the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill last week and paved the way for Article 50 to be implemented at the end of March, if all goes to plan. The large majority of 498 to 114 in favour was expected, despite the heavy hearts with which many Remainer MPs will have entered the lobby to vote in favour. Despite the narrowness of the referendum victory and the anger which is still swirling around the country, most MPs who voted against Brexit in the referendum could not bring themselves to defy their party leaders, in the Labour or Conservative case, or refuse to acknowledge the democratic process and vote against.
A significant Labour revolt of 47 MPs who refused to follow the party line was insufficient to tip the scales, and only one Conservative MP, former minister and well-known EU enthusiast Kenneth Clarke, voted against the bill. Although a voice in the wilderness in his party, his speech during the debate was widely acclaimed among Remainers as the opposition to Brexit which the Labour party has not provided.
Machine in motion will roll over emotions
Winning this vote is just the first step towards triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally starting the process of leaving the EU. There are committee stages of the bill and a vote in the House of Lords to follow, and opposition parties are likely to table numerous amendments, as well as try to seek a commitment from the government to let parliament vote on the final agreement with the EU.
On Thursday the government published a white paper, a standard consultative document in the UK legislative process, in which some detail is given of the target areas it will prioritise as part of the negotiations. None of this is new and covers areas such as immigration, trade relationships with the EU post-Brexit, the status of UK citizens living in the EU and vice versa, and sovereignty returning to the UK in legal matters once the authority of the European Court of Justice is no longer accepted.
For anxious and angry Leavers, fretting about the delays to Brexit and sensing conspiracy around every corner, this small step forward has calmed them slightly. For Remainers this has been another nail in the coffin of an open and outward looking Britain.
The House of Lords could hardly dare to reject the bill, although the government does not have a majority, and whatever the arguments about amendments this bill will almost certainly be passed. So for one half of the country the sun will rise at the end of March and for the other almost half it will start to set.
Down to the nitty gritty and it might not be pretty
As the opposing camps digest this latest stage, it is hard to find any serious commentators of an even vaguely open-minded persuasion who believe that Mrs May and her Brexit ministers will turn promises into prizes and walk away from the negotiations with all they want. While a sort of blind optimism, mixed with an aggressive “go it alone if we have to” kamikaze spirit, still pervades the hard core Brexiteers in the government and the Farage lunatic fringe, the first few months of negotiations are likely to bring long days and sleepless nights to those at the sharp end.
Putting fanciful slogans on coaches about bringing money back from Brussels is one thing but actually sitting across the table from people who are angry, determined and not as desperate to be your friend as you thought, will be a sobering experience for the disciples of disinformation concerned. (Some, such as the happy fellow pictured, will not have to suffer this fate.)
Going on together, with suspicious minds
What is hard to imagine is how both sides of this argument will manage to unite around a common vision for the future. And by sides I mean the general population, not the professional purveyors of insult and injury in the form of politicians.
On two trips back “home” to the UK last year I was struck by the absolute gulf between the two sides. I never raised the referendum directly but on hearing that I lived “in Europe” people raised it with me. A largely older and contented group of people were overjoyed to have won the vote and felt that they had been freed from the shackles of some interfering super state, while younger people I spoke to were shocked, sometimes angry, but also quite scared about the future. I heard numerous stories of divided families, people no longer or barely speaking to each other and a complete lack of understanding of the opposite viewpoint.
As the Brexit supertanker lumbers towards Brussels it is hard to imagine how these two sides can be reconciled, particularly if discussions go badly and the UK is left with no trade deal at all. This will be the real test of whether the blind optimism of becoming a global go it alone trading giant was unfounded, and a crucial moment for the country as it seeks to come to terms with an uncertain future and possible economic hardship.
Last year,in a pre-Brexit article about the referendum, I wrote that we would find out whether the UK was jumping off a cliff or learning to fly again. Mrs May is slowly walking to the edge, followed by some of the great Brexit enthusiasts. (Wrong way around, surely…) Let’s hope they have parachutes and plan B at the ready.
pre-Brexit article Farage