Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does government. If no one knows what to do, if there is chaos and indecision, then the person with the clearest vision — for good or for ill — wins the argument. That’s the lesson of the Russian Revolution, of Weimar Germany, and, without meaning to overdramatize — we are not talking about events on that scale — that’s also the lesson of Brexit Britain.
Britain is past the surprise of June’s referendum and well into the stage of trying to make Brexit happen. Theresa May, the prime minister, has promised to invoke Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the European Union, next March. She won cheers at her party conference by declaring that “Brexit means Brexit.” She does not appear to be deterred by a court decision requiring more parliamentary scrutiny of the process.
But because the European Union is so many things — a trading bloc, a manager of agricultural subsidies, a coordinator of anti-terrorism teams, a funder of culture and scientific research — this statement is farcical. “Brexit means Brexit” — but what does Brexit mean? During the referendum, the “leave” campaigners avoided talking about Britain’s future relationship with Europe (and the rest of the world) because their visions differed so profoundly. Should Britain retain close economic links to the continent, remaining a member of its single market? Should Britain annul all treaties and start again? Are there other options, some organizations in which it would be useful to remain? The situation is further clouded by the fact that the “leave” campaign, like the other populist campaigns this political season, made a series of unfulfillable promises, from the general (“take back control!”) to the specific (350 million pounds a week, a number plucked from the air, for the National Health Service!). None of these can possibly be delivered.
Instead of offering an answer to these questions, the prime minister has created exactly the sort of vacuum that nature and government abhor. Her cabinet members offer different proposals on different days; May herself says she won’t offer a “running commentary,” i.e., no proposals at all. European officials scan the British press for clues; the British press has been reduced to photographing the notebook of a parliamentary assistant in order to figure out May’s goals. (One of them seems to be “have cake and eat it.”)
The result is a classic revolutionary dynamic. In the general chaos, the loudest, clearest and most convincing voices are the most radical: Leave the E.U., leave all of its institutions and just take the hit. Start paying high tariffs, lose the right to sell services in Europe, drop out of those research teams, eliminate all relationships with allies. A small number of anti-European Conservatives — they’ve been preparing this moment for years — are arguing for this form of “hard Brexit.” So is the UK Independence Party and its most powerful media backer, the Daily Mail .
May, like a hapless Kerensky, spends much of her time trying to counter or pander to the minority radicals. At her party conference in October, she threw a bone to the xenophobes by mocking “citizens of the world”; the rest of the time, she gives the impression, in the words of Financial Times columnist David Allen Green, that she is in “an intense negotiation” — not with the E.U., but with her own politicians and press.
Already, the ideas being mooted in the British political debate are much more extreme than anything heard in the referendum campaign, and far from what many people thought they were voting for. But the really dangerous bit comes next. If May makes any compromises at all, the radicals will blame her, not their own folly, for the broken promises. If there’s no extra money for the NHS, if the populist press doesn’t feel “control” has been taken back, if too many immigrants remain — then the fanatics will find scapegoats: anyone deemed insufficiently radical, or inadequately nationalist, or lacking in nerve.
Unless the moderate majority organizes itself into an organized, aggressive and verbal lobby, the angry minority will win this argument. Because this is 2016 and not 1917, I don’t expect an actual civil war to follow. But the damage in lost trade, lost political clout and lost time may be worse than it could have been, and the bitter politics will keep Britain divided and inward-looking for many years.