Where do we go now?
One of the most haunting Arthurian legends concerns Sir Balin. Merlin had long prophesied that he would “strike a stroke most dolorous that ever man struck”. Shrugging off this particular instance of Project Fear from an expert, Sir Balin entered into a feud with the family of King Pellam. Being pursued by the king through his castle, Sir Balin seized “a marvellous spear strangely wrought” and dealt a fierce blow to the king. The spear turned out to be the spear of destiny that struck Jesus and the blow caused immeasurably wider devastation than Sir Balin could have conceived. Sir Thomas Malory recorded that: “all that were alive cried, O Balin, thou hast caused great damage in these countries; for the dolorous stroke thou gavest unto King Pellam three countries are destroyed, and doubt not but the vengeance will fall on thee at the last.”
You can probably see where I am going with this. Since the referendum, we have had concurrent constitutional, political and economic crises of breathtaking proportions. The position of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the union is now in serious question. The future direction of the EU has been thrown into complete confusion. The government is functioning on emergency life support only while the opposition is no longer functioning at all. In the meantime, Britain’s Standard & Poors credit rating has dropped two notches, the pound has suffered its biggest fall in one day against the dollar ever, markets around the world have crashed and recession is beckoning with a dark cloak, a skeletal finger and a voice that speaks in block capitals.
It is of course far too early to conclude that Brexit is a disaster. Even the chirpiest Brexiteer, however, would have to concede that the barometer is currently firmly pointing to stormy. With all of the prominent Leave campaigners queuing up to rat on the Leave campaign promises, it is becoming increasingly unclear what the benefits of Leaving are now supposed to be. It has reached the point where Leave supporters are angrily blaming the government for not telling them.
What next? It is important to differentiate between what needs to be done now and what can wait. This week’s chief task is to stabilise the markets, so far as possible. George Osborne and Mark Carney have done this to the best of their ability.
And then it is time for great minds to discuss ideas. The Conservatives are to hold a leadership contest and it is apparent that it will be contested. The various candidates should be setting out their vision for how to implement the referendum result The winner is likely to be setting policy that will set the course of the nation for two generations, so this had better be well thought-through. A newspaper column dashed off carelessly isn’t going to cut it. For the sake of the nation, the Conservatives need to have a searching examination of the options between the different candidates. This matters as leadership contests very rarely really matter.
The Lib Dems have already set out their position: to rejoin the EU. UKIP’s position is easy to guess – to prioritise restricting freedom of movement above all else.
But what of Labour? What indeed. Right now, their small minds are discussing people. All discussion is focussed on whether Jeremy Corbyn should remain as leader. But that is only the immediate problem. It is likely that there will be a general election later this year in which the main policy topic will be how to negotiate with the EU. The Lib Dems have a position. UKIP has a position. The Conservatives will painstakingly have established a position. But as of today it is hard to contemplate even the mechanism by which Labour can form a policy position. The party has effectively ceased to function.
A general election is pending. Labour is running out of time to form a policy position. As they argue among themselves about how the party is to be led, their leading figures risk complete irrelevance in the debate that is going to dominate British politics for the foreseeable future. If Labour is irrelevant in the debate, the likely electoral consequence is obvious. The most lethal stroke from the referendum result might be to the continued existence of the Labour party itself.