It's rare that the diverse press of these islands speaks with one voice: but that's happened in the UK for nearly three years, since the country voted by 52 to 48% to leave the European Union. There is no agreement on Brexit, of course: but the unanimity is deeper than that. It holds that the whole issue is a present political, and a looming economic, disaster. It doesn't see, or admit, that it's a popular revolt – peaceful and necessary in any free society.
Parliamentary remainers wish to stop the Theresa May Brexit because it's a Brexit. Brexiteers won't vote for it because there's too much of the EU still in it. If and when it comes back to the Commons one more time – advertised as the last time – it presently seems likely to fail again. That may mean a choice faced at last: a hard Brexit, or the revocation of Article 50, the process by which the UK leaves the EU. In that case, the prediction earlier this month by Donald Tusk, European Council president, that there is a 30% chance Britain would not leave the EU, would seem prescient.
The parliamentary block reflects the situation in the country, riven almost equally between those who believe continued membership is intolerable if the UK is to govern itself and those who believe the EU should have at least a share in its governance – among whom a small group believe that it should progress to become a federal state.
These beliefs are among the most important and consequential in the political world. They speak to the nature of democracy in the 21st century; to how British citizens are to be represented; to what real powers remain in parliament's hands, and thus what national sovereignty now means; to the desirability of a transnational government of Europe, in which ministers and officials of different countries will decide on the policies and projects of presently independent nation states.
The UK's membership of the union over the past 47 years has always posed these questions – but they were managed by being seen as the concern of a minority which was stubbornly unreconciled to the union as an expanding political power.
Management was possible because it usually seemed obvious that the UK benefitted economically from membership; and because successive governments took a position of conditional membership – enjoying the benefits of the single market, refusing to participate in the more obviously integrationist measures, as in the Schengen no-passport zone, and above all the Euro currency. In this, we have learned in the past three years, Britain acted as the big brother for a range of smaller countries – as the Scandinavian states, former Soviet Baltic states, the Netherlands and others – which were also increasingly sceptical about ever-closer union.
Now that they are losing that protection, these countries have come together in a group dubbed the 'Hanseatic League' – taking the name of the medieval trading and mutual defence confederation of guilds and city states in northern Europe. Wopke Hoekstra, the Dutch finance minister who has emerged as the spokesman of the group, has made it clear he and his colleagues want a more open single market and a smaller EU budget
A recoil from the onward march of Europeanism isn't confined to the little guys. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the German Christian Democrat politician tapped by Angela Merkel to be her successor, laid out in a speech in March – entitled 'Getting Europe Right' – a vision of a group of nation states committed to collaboration, not to merging – 'A new Europe cannot be founded without the nation states: They provide democratic legitimacy and identification. It is the member states that formulate and bring together their own interests at the European level. This is what gives Europeans their international weight'.
European leaders react in this way because they are aware that their electorates share much of the opinion of the British. In a lucid treatment of territory and political power through the ages to the present – 'Once Within Borders' (Harvard, 2016) – the American political scientist Charles Maier writes that national territory and political power 'has now (become) perhaps irreparably weakened in efficacy, leaving some citizens with a great sense of political melancholy, and others with a determination to revalorise its capacities'.
It's both that 'political melancholy' and the 'determination to revalorise the capacities' of nation states which drives the opposition to President Emmanuel Macron's plans for a centralisation of European power. Though the growth of the national-populist parties over the past decade has been the eye-catching development, their policy of reclaiming sovereignty for the states in which they operate is much broader than their support, and forms an increasing part of the agendas of parties of the left and right – as, in France, of the left-wing 'La France Insoumise' (France Unbowed) and the right-wing Republicans.
This is not just a populist, but a popular movement. Given the chance to vote for or against the EU, the UK's electorate narrowly voted against – testimony to a long-generating view that citizens' leverage over the political process was slipping away from them, and had to be brought back. The Brexiteers' 'Take Back Control' was an effective encapsulation.
The mess that has caused has been considerable. Former heads of the foreign office give discreet interviews in which they lament loss of British status and soft power. City of London bankers and traders let if be known they're looking to up sticks and re-settle in Paris, Frankfurt – or Lisbon, where taxes are low. House prices in London tumble. This is what happens when popular mobilisation on an issue correctly perceived as central breaks out into the open. Dismissed as the response of the ignorant and bigoted, it is an expression not just of political 'melancholy', but of determination to halt that which is seen as dangerous – to democratic rule.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan and a remainer, wrote in the New York Review of Books earlier this year that her 'leave-voting constituents have been called stupid, racist little Englanders. The truth is nothing of the sort... when people were asked if they wanted to leave the EU, it was an opportunity to push back against one of the most vivid symbols of a political system that is faceless, unresponsive and unaccountable, where decisions are made by people hundreds of miles away'.
Scotland is different: its vote on the issue of the EU was nearly two thirds for Remain. Unlike in the rest of the UK, the Scots news media were united in calling for Remain – and there was no strong figure, in the Scots parliament or out of it, who could attract and shape the Eurosceptic vote: in these circumstances it's a little surprising that as many as a third of voters chose Brexit.
More important, though, is the fact that Scotland's popular/populist politics has been largely captured by the SNP – the most pro-EU party in Britain. It made a choice, back in the 80s, to adopt the slogan of 'Scotland in Europe' – thus exchanging one union of more than three centuries vintage for one of less than 50 years. The enthusiasm on which it can still draw and the status it acquired under two efficient propagandists for the cause of Scots independence meant that populism in Scotland is both nationalist and cosmopolitan – an unstable mixture, but so far mutually supportive.
I believe both choices to be wrong. Britain was better in the EU, on condition that it remained a single market of states which collaborated closely on issues of common concern – and did not attempt super-nation building. Scotland is better in a union which has, in the 20th and 21st centuries, been a fairly efficient vehicle for common standards of public provision (which for some years have greatly benefitted Scotland).
But in both cases popular and populist surges – which cause, or will cause, huge political dislocation – must be accommodated and respected. Government is not a matter of smooth management of traditional parties. It can blow the ship of state way off course. As it has.