According to Lenin, there are decades in history where nothing happens, and then sometimes weeks where decades happen.
If that is true, then Brexit seems to have given us a third category entirely: a weekly cycle of impossible drama and contradiction that merely feeds into another baffling cycle of the same, where weeks feel like years, years sometimes like weeks, where so many things change, and yet, finally, nothing ever does.
It’s like UK has sold the rights of its politics to Netflix: characters, even PMs, come and go freely, the narrative changes on a daily basis, and what plot there once was is like some vaunted treasure that has long since disappeared under the waves as a free-for-all ensues on the surface.
This could be a monumental week. Or it could be like the others, when a week or so later, we’ve already forgotten what actually happened.
Even to be able to vaguely follow what may happen on a given day requires a considerable time commitment, and without Brian’s excellent summaries on these pages, I’d be lost completely. Five years ago, I’d never sat and watched anything from any Parliament before. After all, what normal person would? It’s supposed to be the most boring viewing in the world. Now I’m watching daily bloodbaths between Westminster rivals. Anything for late-night popcorn entertainment. Call it Brexfactor, where every night someone’s political career ends in tears.
Even in Germany, they have this on live some nights – commentators and all, for which they find the blend of total farce and old-world ceremony as bewildering as it is great viewing.
This week, we’ve been totally spoilt with two epic voting battles tearing Westminster apart. One is a third meaningful, but simultaneously pointless, vote on the most rejected deal in history. Whether or not that one goes actually goes ahead tomorrow changes with the wind: blink for a moment, and you’ve lost the thread on it again. The other, is to further whittle down other opposite options, none of which have a majority yet, which should have been debated before the referendum itself, and which that the government has said it will ignore anyway.
Tomorrow, of course, is nominally the day Brexit was supposed to actually happen. No one knows when it will now, if it will, how, or increasingly, why. In a perhaps desperate attempt to bludgeon it through, the Prime Minister has finally had enough of all the obvious traps she walked into herself, announcing her resignation not to the media, or people who elected her, but in some oak-panelled room somewhere before something called the 1922 committee. I’d no idea what this was before, but now I do, I can only think of it being like a Tory version of the Stonecutters club from the Simpsons, except without the beer mugs and catchy tunes. And Thatcher photos everywhere, probably.
I studied UK public and constitutional law at University. But I hated that subject then. And this is way beyond whatever insight that was supposed to give, especially when there are rules and procedures being cited from before the UK even existed and which even the Prime Minister didn’t see coming. I vaguely remember things like Dicey, the inalienable sovereignty of Parliament, and sombre procedural tomes like Erskine May. Now these are being used as weapons by both sides, although not literally, as much as I’d like to see a copy of the latter fly across the floor one day in outrage. I also can’t remember anything about a giant golden mace sitting in the middle of all this, like that is the most normal thing in the world. It feels like some of this stuff shouldn’t happen in Hogwarts, not in the national parliament of a world power.
I’d hazard a guess that most people in Northern Ireland have only a vague notion of what’s going on in all of this. That may be true for the mainland too, but people have at least probably heard of who some of these people are before, and can find most of the places these people represent on a map.
Four years ago, I’d have struggled to name you more than twenty MPs from the 600 or so that sit there, excluding our own. Compared to some, that’s probably not bad. I asked my mum once: beyond David Cameron, she was really struggling. And you can hardly blame her, as that sort of indifference and distance served us all well for a while, whether we can admit that or not.
It’s easy, with the DUP in their current much-fraught arrangement with the Conservatives, to forget that in our short history, English politics has found Unionists as frequent a thorn in their side as they have Nationalists. A hundred years ago, Herbert Asquith pleaded to his diary for the whole lot of us to be thrown under the waves of the Atlantic for ten years – unionist and nationalist alike. A hundred years later, Theresa May must be feeling similarly. And that’s only after two years of partnership with the orange side from here.
If anything, Brexit has been an education for all of us, a window-view into a strange and unfamiliar world of this “Mother of Parliaments” that we’ve never really seen in this sort of light before.
If we step back for a second, the last few years seem surreal. Remember, the only reason any of these votes are going ahead is because the Government was successfully taken to court about it. A government whose interpretation of the Brexit vote saw its healthy majority wiped out in a General Election, despite largely campaigning on this topic. A Government which has been declared in contempt of Parliament, which sounded quite serious at the time. Which, when it finally published impact assessments, seemed to have stuffed them full of things from Wikipedia, and whose predictions of negative decline were dismissed as propaganda by people in the Government itself.
We’re going onto the Third Prime Minister already, and the main talks haven’t yet started. There must have been about 50 resignations from both parties. A totally new party has emerged, while the main two somehow haven’t splintered further. How can anyone realistically keep up with this?
Brexit is frequently defended as a simple, binary question. But over the past few years we’ve had leave MPs who’ve gone through every possible shade on the ever-extending leave/remain spectrum, sometimes in the same day, sometimes in the same interview, sometimes mid-sentence. Some of offered u-turns so spectacular that even the Oracle at Delphi would struggle to see coming, and yet only constant for all of them has been their unshakeable belief that granting the same right to the public would be an affront to the very ideals of democracy, for which Westminster is claimed to stand as a holy beacon in a world of gathering clouds and terror. Added to this, even the most cynical fortune teller would likely refuse your coin than predict what the labour party will end up doing in all of this – if this meant having to keep a straight face. May, for all her woes and mortal limitations, must thank her lucky stars that Corbyn is leading the main opposition party in a moment of national crisis.
Brexit is falling down around Northern Ireland and its borders, as people here thought it might, but the only representatives we have there are the DUP, whose rhetoric and stance against the overwhelming majority of people here often makes me think they’re on the political equivalent of a suicide mission. Or maybe, as Arlene Foster hinted last night, the Union is ultimately more important than Brexit to them, and as push is quickly coming to shove, maybe they’re wrecking everything in the hope nothing actually happens at all. If there is to be a second referendum, then at least they save some face.
Would other MPs from other parties make a difference? Possibly, and more like Sylvia Hermon would be nice. Although if Sinn Fein ever did, imagine the treason calls for anyone siding with them on decisive votes like this. Those votes wouldn’t stay close for long. The SNP have 30 MPs and a cast iron mandate from their people, but they often seem to be openly mocked, their views and suggestions derisively ignored, and even their reaction speeches after key votes cut off by the news channels even though they are by some distance the third biggest party in the place. If they barely matter, what good would a handful of more MPs from here – outside the current freakish electoral circumstances? When the biggest selling paper in the UK asks “Who will speak for England” before a historic UK vote, you know where you’re going to stand in all of this.
It often surprises English friends of mine how much Brexit is viewed through a mostly local lens in Northern Ireland, and how it isn’t even the biggest issue going. I know my family barely talk about it, and groan every time I even ask them about it. If a border poll was instead the topic, I bet it would be very different.
This brings us to the biggest fact of all. Whatever you think of Brexit, there is simply no way its stench is going to go away here any time soon, as it will only ever lead on to other unique and immediate questions here. These questions were buried for a reason, but out they will now undoubtedly come, and I’m not sure they can be put back again so easily again. And as these questions are not something that people in Essex or Northumberland will ever have to ponder, that’s why Brexit for us will never be the same as Brexit for them.
Here, it almost feels that what will likely be an even dirtier debate than Brexit has already started. This is the first time, at least in my 33 years, that I have seen prominent British politicians talk about Northern Ireland almost as an indivisible part of the UK, that merely continuing existing regulatory alignment with the South would be grab on UK territory, and even, as if the peace process and Good Friday Agreement didn’t happen, that no British Prime Minister could countenance losing it.
This is starting in earnest now. For people growing up under that Agreement, this is new ground, as is the birth of a growing argument on the other side. That this may happen seems to have taken some in England by surprise, but it was fairly obvious to most of us just under three years ago now. And the intervening time as not been kind to one side of that debate.
Ultimately, this is a debate that wasn’t our question, and won’t be listening to our answers. As the last days have shown, Ulster and its votes can be expendable even at the most critical of times. Our MPs are our own, our votes stay over here, and eventually, a brief period of our politicians holding power will fade like snow in the rain. As we know, our own more important vote may well come sooner than we ever thought it would. Until then, we can only do our best to follow this, and when it’s eventually all over, as surely it will be soon, hope that whatever process we go through at least isn’t as disastrous as this, and that we at least talk about some of the stuff before it actually happens.
Even if it does make for great TV.
Chris Mckee is a 33 year old lawyer from North Belfast, now living and working in Germany. Likes cake, cheese and the occasional blog. Frequently misses soda bread and a good cup of tea.