It was a rotten deal that deserved to be trounced on merit, or rather demerit. But it wasn’t about that, was it?
Huge political upheavals tend to be about backstabbing, not face value. Subtext, not text. Connotation, not denotation.
And all those things point at the worst constitutional crisis in my long lifetime, a span that covers Suez and a host of lesser debacles.
Suez was bad; some of the others were no God’s gift to Britain either. But none that I recall has ever threatened the survival of Britain as a political entity – which more or less means Britain as a nation.
Our country is blessed with the greatest, certainly longest, political stability in Europe. For example, France has had 17 different constitutions since Louis XIV was king. During the same period Britain has had just one.
Yet there’s a curse implicit in this blessing. Because Britain was both proud and envied as the world’s greatest political success, politics more than anything else got to define British nationhood.
Throughout kaleidoscopic changes of constitutions, France remained France; Spain remained Spain; even Germany remained Germany. England wouldn’t have survived anything like that.
Britain became a political nation – not because she was obsessed with politics, but because she didn’t have to be. Politics could be taken for granted. It was just there, as Britain was.
That’s why the world’s oldest and best constitution didn’t have to be codified in a single document. The British constitution isn’t a contrivance produced by the fecund minds of today’s flavour in sages.
It’s an organic development, written not on paper but in the people’s hearts. If the people’s hearts remain blank, no written constitution will ever succeed over time.
To get back at Americans, who claim Britain has no constitution because she lacks that single sheet of paper, I often liken a written constitution to a prenuptial agreement stipulating the frequency of sex: if you have to write it down, you might as well not bother. There’s some truth in this, although it’s probably not the whole truth.
What’s undeniably true is that Britain’s nation and her politics became an alloy, with neither constituent removable. Any attempt to remove zinc from copper or copper from zinc would destroy brass – this analogy has pertained for 300-odd years at least.
Government, to replace a metaphor with a simile, was like a relay baton, passed from one party to another without ever interrupting the race.
It never – well, seldom – occurred to anybody that the baton could be stamped into the dirt and the race called off. And when that possibility did occur to some reprobate, he had no chance to be in the race at all.
British politics seemed as indestructible as the British nation itself. But make no mistake about it: what is collapsing before our eyes isn’t just May’s ‘deal’. Not just Brexit. Not just the government. Not just the Tory party.
At deadly peril is the very survival of the British constitution, British politics – the British nation.
Within weeks, months at the latest, Britain may well be governed by a gang explicitly devoted to her annihilation. And this isn’t the only sword of Damocles hanging over the nation’s head.
It may also be chopped off by our abject, tail-between-the-legs crawling back into the EU, begging not to be whipped too hard for that little indiscretion, confining ourselves for ever to that political doghouse.
One way or the other, Britain qua Britain will be finished, irretrievably buried by either domestic subversives or foreign tyrants – or, and this is a very distinct possibility, by both acting in concert.
Suddenly the political self-confidence of the British begins to look like negligent complacency. For too long the nation has let its politics slide, without realising how slippery the downward slope was.
People forgot that any political machine is only as good as its operators. Britain’s politics is so solid and organic that the country can get away with a few governments of nonentities: the system will accommodate and compensate.
But its capacity for accommodation and compensation isn’t infinite. Each subsequent government by nonentities, each new crop of representatives unqualified to represent, leaves a dent – and then suddenly a hole with jagged edges appears.
We see the hole and throw our hands up in despair. But we should have noticed the dents in time and banged them out.
We should have realised that, when a political system constantly elevates to government those unfit to govern, something is getting to be terribly wrong with the system.
Alas, seeing that I’m given to a melange of similes today, our political malaise is like the pre-antibiotic TB: when the clearly visible symptoms appear, it may be too late to do anything about it.
Those of us who love Britain must rue her impending demise. I don’t know how it can be prevented, but let’s hope that cleverer and more practical men do.
I pray for such men and I do hope they realise what’s at stake. Not just Brexit. Not just the government. Not just the Tory party. What’s at stake is the British nation.