For three years, parliament has been in the grip of a fight between two extremes and it is driving us and the country to breaking point. An uncompromising battle has raged between those MPs who want to leave without a deal and those who want a second referendum. Between them, these factions have defeated proposals for a customs union and a citizens’ assembly and knocked out any other potential route to a consensus.
Those of us who believe that both the 48 per cent who wanted Britain to remain in the EU and the 52 per cent who favoured leaving must have a stake in the future of this country, and that a deal with the EU is the only route to achieving this, have been drowned out by the noise from both sides. On social media, appeals for compromise are met with abuse from Leave and Remain supporters alike.
But in the country at large there is a decent, sensible majority who mourn for a country that was once able to reconcile its differences. I am approached daily by members of the public offering thanks for attempting to heal divisions, both in Leave-voting Wigan and in Remain-backing London where I spend time as an MP every week. They must have a voice.
That’s why MPs from several political parties successfully amended Hilary Benn’s bill this week to make clear that the purpose of seeking an extension to the Brexit deadline is to agree a deal: one that gives the UK a close, progressive relationship with our former partners but outside of the EU, and with decision-making much more transparent, accountable and much closer to home.
Critics point out that even if parliament passes a withdrawal agreement, that will not provide a neat ending to the crisis. They are right. The trade negotiations have not yet begun, and the next stages may be lengthy and complex. But consider the two stark alternatives.
We could let a no-deal, disorderly exit happen, with businesses closing, jobs lost, medicine supplies disrupted, clinical trials cancelled and people taking to the streets in anger at an outcome they consider unacceptable and illegitimate. Or we could revoke Article 50 and halt the Brexit process altogether. The latter may be preferential to leaving without any deal, but we cannot close our eyes to the repercussions of denying the outcome of the 2016 referendum. The anger among some Leave voters is palpable in towns like mine. Democracy is creaking at the seams. This is how to push it beyond breaking point.
The Tories clearly aim to capitalise on this discontent, promising money for health, schools, the police and a “towns fund” squarely aimed at Labour voters. But there is widespread disillusion with both major political parties — this is starting to translate into disillusion with our politics. Representative democracy cannot survive if people feel unrepresented. And populist parties are pushing for an end to liberal democracy, in which we all have rights, in favour of majority rule. This is what is at stake. Things can and will get worse if we make the wrong choices.
Some argue that any Brexit panders to the far-right. But it is wrong to characterise millions of people as extremists simply for wanting a different set of international relationships than the one they have. In truth, as John F Kennedy put it, “there are few if any issues where all the truth and all the right and all the angels are on one side”. The view that wanting to leave the EU is beyond the pale closes off any possibility for meaningful dialogue.
It may be that a soft-landing Brexit proves, in the end, unsustainable. In years to come, we may revisit our arrangements with the EU and future generations will reshape them as they see fit. The EU itself, after years of warnings, may come to understand the need to reform and this will make the prospect of membership more palatable for sceptics in Britain and elsewhere.
But for now, with no quick fix to the many divisions that Brexit has put on display, we must choose the one route that offers us a chance to heal. We need to rediscover the art of compromise or we will regret it for decades to come.
The writer is Labour MP for Wigan