BORIS JOHNSON HAS NEVER been a man you can take entirely at his word. So even his warning to prepare for a No Deal Brexit must be greeted with scepticism. According to one plausible interpretation, Johnson is being as duplicitous as ever, ramping up tensions, taking Britain to the precipice, only to emerge at the last minute with a lame duck deal, while saving face and posing as the hero of the hour.
Then again, a faction of Conservatives with representation in cabinet has always liked the notion of No Deal. Escalating business fears, only to play the last-ditch saviour, also means escalating ERG hopes, only to dash them. Johnson’s game of chicken is therefore bound to outrage someone. Once again, this highlights a clash between the Conservative Party’s social role in UK politics, as the servant of big business, and the ideological factions shaping the party machinery. It is not clear, at this stage, which force will win, which only proves how dysfunctional the British ruling class has become.
If the Conservatives are pushing towards No Deal, one factor will be the pandemic. An emerging economic emergency entails a radical rethink of capitalism: few will deny that. The system as currently designed does not work and has not worked for some time. It can no longer deliver even modestly rising living standards. With economic collapse inevitable one way or another, the Conservatives may be banking on undertaking some radical changes in a spirit of renewal. None of these premises are entirely wrong: indeed, if anything it highlights the absence of a radical left programme to address this crisis.
There is also no inherent problem with restoring sovereignty, the putative Conservative aim. The old type of globalisation is broken, and it’s a shame some on the left refuse to accept this reality. But the aim should then be popular sovereignty. And the UK state cannot deliver this, because the institutions linking people to parliament have broken down beyond repair. Scotland now obeys entirely separate political rhythms. Northern Ireland will have its own arrangements with the EU. National dynamics are growing in Wales. And the question of English democracy is a live one.
Time for federalism! cry some. But despite Gordon Brown’s window dressing, there is little to believe that another patched-up devolution will correct any of the conflicts that led us here. It will only prolong the agony of a political unit that long ceased to make sense.
No Deal would surely radicalise those problems. It would drive key holdouts against independence, the privileged professional middle classes, into the arms of the Yes movement. It will force a reckoning, also, for unionist Remainers, who spoke of No Deal as if it would herald the apocalypse. Can independence truly be riskier than the apocalypse? Equally it would equally escalate the old questions about the independence leadership. They also talked of No Deal in apocalyptic terms – so what now? What sort of conflicts will they be willing to risk with Westminster?
Still, caution should prevail, because Johnson is Johnson, and only the gullible take him at his word. But either way, some faction of Britain’s ruling elite is getting stuffed, and tensions will only escalate. Johnson may not be a good leader, a capable leader or a just leader. But we have to allow that he keeps things interesting.