Even veterans of British politics say they have known nothing like it, so highly charged is the atmosphere inside and outside parliament, so deafening and ubiquitous the noise, so impassioned and uninhibited the arguments. It is hard to believe that MPs have been back in Westminster only a few days since the festive break.
In becoming fixated on individuals and points of procedure, however, there is a risk that the big picture loses focus. And the big picture – the whole reason why tensions are running so high – is that next Tuesday, or if not Tuesday then sometime before 29 March, the future of the UK will be decided. The process set in train by the June 2016 referendum will reach its conclusion. And no one knows – let’s be honest – how it is going to end: deal or no deal, “people’s referendum”, “snap” general election, “government of national unity”. We are sailing into uncharted waters, towards terra incognita.
This is not a comfortable place for any country to be, still less one that is used to regarding itself as a paragon of solidity. For some people the experience will be exhilarating, with promise of unprecedented opportunity; for many, it will feel unnerving and fraught with peril. But this time should be seen for what it is, a historic national turning point.
As a foreign correspondent, I witnessed two such turning points up close – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, and the “tied” US election of 2000. Now, I am watching our very own. And while they are all obviously very different in many ways, there are key points in common.
There is, of course, the febrile atmosphere. There is the way sharp grassroots divisions – suddenly so it seems – find their expression at the apex of national politics. There is not just verbal excess, but the threat that insults could descend all too quickly into physical violence. Most of all what they have in common, though, is the pervasive uncertainty, the sense that there is no one and nothing in control, even as the fate of the country is at stake.
In the last two years of the Soviet Union, such moments multiplied, culminating in the failed three-day coup of August 1991 that spelt the end of both Soviet communism and, within months, of the USSR itself. Yet there was uncertainty until the very end, and a plethora of “what ifs”, decision points when things might have turned out differently.
What if, for instance, Mikhail Gorbachev’s project for a looser union had come to fruition? Or if Boris Yeltsin had not challenged the coup against Gorbachev and the particular unit mobilised had used force, rather than turned their guns away from protesters? Or if a different economic reform model had been chosen? Or if Gorbachev’s plea to the west for something akin to a Marshall Plan had been granted, rather than ignored? With hindsight, it seems that the Soviet Union was doomed; its political and economic structures were unsustainable. But there was many a day, many a week, when it appeared that other outcomes were possible; that the future of the country hung in the balance.
A similar sense of the imminent unknown followed the 2000 election in the United States. The very notion that a developed democracy such as the US might not be capable of recounting a crucial vote might seem extraordinary, and it did at the time. To the extent that the constitution functioned and the Supreme Court eventually did its job as arbiter, a more extreme national crisis was avoided. But in the weeks between the actual election and the Supreme Court judgement, the whole of political life was on hold; uncertainty prevailed.
There were angry scenes at the attempted recount in Florida, with rival protesters jostling furiously outside and a posse of Republican supporters at one point trying to force their way into the premises. At each judicial stage, the verdict could have gone either way. People bedded down in the freezing cold outside the Supreme Court building in Washington to be sure of a place in the chamber when the ruling was handed down.
The whole episode exposed flaws in the US electoral process, only some of which have been remedied. And the final judgment – which was to halt the attempted recount – could have gone either way. Al Gore could have become president. What then? How would he have responded to 9/11, would there have been a President Obama, still less a President Trump?
Return to the UK in January 2019, and how often have we been told over the past 48 hours that the prime minister has “lost control” – either of her government or this parliament? The most positive gloss on the chaos is that parliament has reasserted itself. Well, maybe. But it actually remains pitted against “the will of the people” as expressed in the 2016 referendum. Is it up to parliament to act on that vote, or do the Remain majority of MPs have a duty to follow their own view of the national interest? We don’t know.
Before the recess, a small group of MPs suggested that one route out of the Commons deadlock might be to try “indicative voting” – non-binding votes on a selection of options that might show where a majority could be found. The last time this was tried – and failed – was on the vexed question of House of Lords reform in 2003. For me, though, there was another, perhaps more pertinent, parallel. Indicative voting was a staple of the last Soviet parliament (the USSR Supreme Soviet). One of its purposes was to manipulate the vote by smoking out dissenters to the government line. But another was to try to identify a way forward – for political and economic legislation – at a time when the legislature was fractured and everything, but everything, was in flux.
Something similar could be said of the UK today. Certain fundamentals of the UK’s constitutional system – long regarded as immutable – are suddenly in play, from devolution to party politics. Who would venture to forecast with any confidence that the UK will still be the UK in its current composition in 10, 20, 50 years? Or that the Conservative and Labour parties will still form the basis of national politics over the same time?
But Brexit – or no Brexit, soft, hard or red-white-and-blue Brexit – is already calling even more than structures and procedures into question. Disused airfields requisitioned for queuing lorries, possible shortages of medicine and Mediterranean vegetables will be little more than short-term glitches. Longer term, it is the very character of the country that is at stake.
The mood outside parliament has grown ugly, but it reflects only the divisions beyond. And the symbols, if not yet the substance, are shifting. There are more little Union flags on shop products now, while “Euro” as a selling point is vanishing. This is the way things are going. However the argument ends – if it ever does – this country will be changed forever. This historic turning point needs to be recognised for what it is.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.