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Brexit requires visionary leadership that we simply don’t have. Yet.
US Capitol in 1860 - [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am always struck by this photo of the US Capitol Building under construction during the US Civil War. I came across a similar one reading Ronald C White Jr’s biography on Abraham Lincoln. As a country tore itself apart, the very institutions of US government were still under construction. The photo reveals a level of imagination and ambition in the face of profound uncertainty, that is foreign to our experience in the modern West.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has created enormous amounts of uncertainty – that require much imagination. The depth of this uncertainty is greater than most politicians or media outlets admit.

In the furore that has broken out since the referendum in the UK (demonstrations and counter demonstrations, High Court cases, commentator tit for tat, social media genocide) the simple point remains: the referendum is a constitutional issue.

We are bringing law making back to the UK Parliament, after four decades of our governmental and political institutions atrophying in a co-dependent if not an abusive relationship with the EU.

There is much to be done in re-imagining our future and reinvigorating the institutions that will deliver it:

Parliament…

Prime Minister…

Political parties and…

Civil service.

With many of their powers given over to the EU, the Westminster parliament and Whitehall government machine have not been the homes for talent that would be true of a fully empowered democracy. Credit: Joe Daniel Price, Getty

Prime Ministers and Parliament

Since 1973, the British Prime Minister has, to an increasing degree, been either comforted or hemmed in by the apparatus of Europe. The deadening effect is the same: the buck doesn’t stop at Number 10.

Since joining the Common Market, no MP has entered Parliament where the pinnacle of their career is to be Prime Minister of an independent country. The exception is the new intake of 2017.

If we are unimpressed with the current Prime Minister’s attempts to ‘do’ Brexit, and confused as to who could replace her, we need to take a long term view.

We should reflect on the fact that Parliament has not been an incubating chamber for the sort of political leadership that a post-Brexit UK requires. Arguably, that is the point of Brexit and why the country voted for it.

Europhiles, like Ken Clarke, wanted to reduce the scale and scope of Westminster, from sovereign parliament to a Council Chamber. They achieved their goal.

Now it is not just trade negotiators that don’t exist in the UK. Effective political leaders with an appetite and background in running a sovereign country are in short supply too.

Political parties

Pre-2016 we lived with a comfortable sense that all parties offered essentially the same thing but with a different logo.

During the referendum campaign, the curtains lifted to show a pro-EU establishment cutting across party lines. It was possible, at one’s most cynical, to imagine the party system a pantomime to preoccupy the electorate while successive governments got on with the task of ever increasing enmeshment with the EU. Fisheries, agriculture, financial regulation, immigration, supreme adjudication of court cases, are all competencies that have been handed over to Europe over time. (Incidentally, those that argue the handover of policy and legislation to Europe has been insignificant are also those that say the UK is so entrenched in the EU that leaving will be cataclysmic – it is either one or the other, but it cannot be both.)

But perhaps more importantly, a significant element of the Brexit shock was turnout among people who didn’t usually vote. The referendum offered a real choice to people about something that mattered where our party political system has left many disenfranchised through its irrelevance.

Now it is not just trade negotiators that don’t exist in the UK. Effective political leaders with an appetite and background in running a sovereign country are in short supply too.

Again, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this, nor the struggle for parties to build strong memberships.

If all parties do is to field representatives to a Parliament that just rubber stamps laws created elsewhere, it is small wonder those same parties have developed a flavourless impotence.

The restoration of law making to the UK should mean parties will be reinvigorated because they’ll matter.

The question is where will the party lines fall?

And does Brexit, and the views and alliances the referendum campaign exposed or created, help in the process of an early twenty first century political party realignment?

The pressure is on for one: to sort the the near permanent schism within the Conservative Party over Europe; the de facto split in the Labour Party between socialism and Blairism; and to fix the lack of national reach for some Parties across the Union.

The Civil Service

We shouldn’t be surprised that the Civil Service did not come up with a plan in the event of a ‘Leave’ win. Their capacity for independent imagination has withered.

Brexit is an existential crisis for a Civil Service that has long derived its policies and priorities from the EU.

With such a substantial regime change our civil servants are being forced to grow a different set of priorities, mission loyalties and skills overnight.

Brexit presents an opportunity for an overhaul of the purpose and point of the Civil Service. And the composition of the Government Departments they serve. I’m sure we’ll get to it once we’ve figured out Juncker, but I hope someone’s doing the thinking for it.

Uncertainty and Change

If we are being inadequately served by our governing and political institutions as we attempt to leave the EU we should be realistic. We have gutted our capacity for such leadership.

But it would be wrong to conclude that just because we’ve had years of a dependent relationship with the European project, that we should abandon departure – even if Parliamentarians spasm to remain. The people voted for an independent country and in time we will build the capacity and competence for such independence of thought and action. In the meantime Brexit may look like a construction site.

We should, as the Americans in the 1860s, or any other generation before us, remember that building a great country is possible even in the gaping abyss of uncertainty and change – in fact, it is likely these are the only conditions in which anyone ever has.