Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Britain is fast approaching a democratic showdown over Brexit – and it could well be the worst of the current worldwide horde of nationalist populist movements.
To be sure, measured by the standards of Hungary, Turkey or Russia, British populism does not look so bad. But the end of the United Kingdom is a probable outcome of the hardline Brexit, toward which Prime Minister Boris Johnson is steering the country, which would significantly weaken both the European Union and the transatlantic alliance. And for one of the world’s oldest, most stable parliamentary democracies, what has happened in Westminster is shocking.
The Conservative party, a centre-right broad church for at least a century, has become the Revolutionary Conservative Party. Last week, it purged 21 MPs, including Winston Churchill’s grandson and two former chancellors of the exchequer, all of them more entitled to call themselves Conservatives than Mr. Johnson – let alone Dominic Cummings, his Mephistophelean adviser who is not even a member of the party. Resigning from the Cabinet in disgust, Amber Rudd, a One Nation Tory, called this an “assault on decency and democracy”.
The conservative revolutionaries have forced through the longest prorogation of Parliament since 1930, transparently lying about its purpose. “The people will never forgive Remain plotters if they don’t back down,” thundered Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservatives’ parliamentary leader in the lower house, in the Daily Mail, ignoring the fact that the last time the people actually spoke through the ballot box was precisely how we got this parliament of “Remain plotters."
But this is where the good news begins: Many television viewers around the world have been laughing at the House of Commons, with its antiquated procedures and theatrical Speaker. The Westminster Parliament is actually doing us Brits proud. Over the last couple of years, those green, leather benches have seen great speeches, deep emotion and rare courage, with men and women genuinely putting the national interest before personal and party advantage. Now, Parliament has swiftly passed a law that obliges the government to ask for an article 50 extension if no deal has been agreed with the European Union and approved by MPs by Oct. 19. Were Mr. Johnson to refuse to do this – as he is currently threatening – then he would have broken the law and could, ultimately, be sent to prison.
What should Britain’s democratic showdown look like? Former prime minister Tony Blair says the next step should be a second referendum. That is exactly where we should end up, but there are not the numbers in this Parliament to vote through the necessary legislation. It is just possible that Mr. Johnson will abandon all his red lines and would scramble toward a slightly modified version of the deal negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, which could be agreed at the EU summit in October and might even scrape through this Parliament.
But absent that unlikely turn, the next step is a U.K. general election. Since Mr. Johnson cannot be trusted, the opposition parties have agreed to wait until an article 50 extension is secured before consenting to that election. If Mr. Johnson resigns rather than request an extension, that will get us to an election by another route. Much though their patience has been tried, the EU parliament would be wise to grant an extension of at least two months, on the clear understanding that Britain’s sovereign parliament will have brought about a general election within that time. The alternative – a no-deal Brexit – is much worse for both sides of the Channel and future relations across it.
And in this election, exceptional wisdom will be required from every British voter who wants Britain to be true to itself. In the past, we talked of tactical voting; this time, saving Britain will require existential voting.
The electoral advantage will be with the hard Brexiters. They have a single, clear objective – get Britain out of the EU – and their vote is only divided two ways, between the Revolutionary Conservative Party and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party; they could make an electoral pact.
The other side, meanwhile, does not have a single, clear objective – split between a second referendum or just a softer Brexit. And our vote is potentially split seven ways, between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the Scottish National Party in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Independent group and former Tory MPs, some of whom will probably stand as Independent Conservatives.
Winning this election will therefore require unprecedented co-operation between opposition parties, constituency by constituency. It will also require unprecedented mobilization, discipline and skill on the part of voters, identifying the candidate to back in each constituency – in short, existential voting. The People’s Vote campaign promises online guidance. Social media and youth turnout will be pivotal. Officials in 10 Downing Street have told insider Katie Perrior, a former communications director at Number 10, that one reason they want an early election is to pre-empt incoming students registering to vote and potentially swinging the result in their university towns. I trust that indicates to all students exactly what they need to do.
An analysis of recent polling by political scientist Matthew Goodwin shows just how decisive this existential voting could be. If the Tories pick up more than half of current Brexit-party supporters, they gain an overall majority of seats in Parliament. If, however, Labour and Lib Dems forge a successful electoral pact, the result is a pro-referendum majority in Parliament.
That won’t be the end of the hard work. Even if the opposition parties and independents get that majority, they still need to keep it together to legislate for a second referendum together. Even if that happens, we still need to win it. Even if we win it, we will still have the huge task of showing those who voted for Brexit in 2016, often for reasons little related to the reality of the EU, that we have heard them loud and clear. But at least there is still a chance – perhaps a last chance – for one of the world’s most venerable democracies to help turn the global tide against nationalist populism.
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