On one level, last Thursday’s crunch votes were a matter of internal struggle within the Conservative and Labour parties, exposing deep divisions in each. The parliamentary politics are undeniably important for determining the outcome and the next steps around Brexit.
But the situation also shows the consequences of a deeper process of structural transformation of British representative politics.
Importantly, one of the major sources of the underlying confusion and disorganisation around the parliamentary politics of Brexit lies in the effects of the UK’s transition from a nation state to a member state during the longer-term process of EU integration.
For May, it was another day of intra-party conflict as she attempted to corral support for Brexit on her terms. Her strategy, broadly, remained the same: to use the threat of no deal to blackmail opponents into accepting her deal.
Her party is split between eurosceptics who have coalesced around the European Research Group on the one hand, and Remain-supporting MPs who mostly seem to accept the electoral need for the party to respect the referendum result.
Labour, of course, face a different problem. The parliamentary party and the membership are strongly pro-Remain, while the leadership and key Labour constituencies are not.
Corbyn’s major goal, as with almost all events concerning Brexit, was to avoid committing to anything that might be unacceptable to Labour-leaning Leave voters, or the Remainer Parliamentary Labour Party and membership.
Overall, key for May will be a no-deal option remaining on the table for the vote on 27 February. Without this lever, it is unlikely that she will be able to secure parliamentary support for her deal.
In that situation, an extension of Article 50 seems highly likely; if Article 50 is extended, the pressure for a second referendum will probably be unavoidable.
A lack of unity among political actors representing clear interests goes some way to explaining this seeming crisis of representative politics, but the picture is not complete without an account of European integration and the effect of the EU membership – rather than the EU as an independent political actor – on British politics and politicians.
One oft-overlooked element of the debate around Brexit, and the EU more widely, is that EU integration has direct effects on the character and nature of national politics.
As Chris Bickerton has argued consistently in his work on European integration, debate over the UK’s EU membership often mistakes the nature of the EU. Some portray it as a supranational superstate that crushes the sovereignty of member states, while others see it as a step towards a federal Europe.
These perspectives miss an important point: European integration is best understood as a process of state transformation. A key features of today’s EU is that while international cooperation becomes more common, we have not seen the development of a supranational EU.
Instead, national representatives have become more entrenched within European integrative processes and have changed their orientation away from ideological conflicts at the nation-state level to consensual processes at the European level.
Member state theory allows last week’s votes to be placed into the context of deep change in the capacities and outlook of British parliamentarians. It is therefore not entirely correct to attribute the seeming lack of leadership and direction among parliamentarians to the failings of individual political leaders.
Rather, Brexit has exposed a process that had already weakened the capacities of British politicians to respond to a domestic crisis, namely the movement from a nation state to a member state.
In this sense, the effect of the UK’s membership of the EU on parliamentary politics is part of a longer-term dynamic in British representative politics – the increasing distance between MPs and voters.
The political scientist Peter Mair had already identified this trend in the mid-2010s, when he wrote of the the ‘hollowing out’ of representative democracy. He describes the clear trend of declining voter turnout, party membership rates, and union membership rates across Western Europe from the 1970s to 2010s.
In this context, the EU provided an increasingly attractive source of legitimacy for national representatives: unable to attract mass support at home, consensus between national representatives at the European level became increasingly attractive as a source of legitimacy for political decisions.
Taking into account this key political effect of EU integration, it is worth noting that the seeming impasse at the heart of today’s situation has deep roots. The outcome was neither decisive nor final – even with respect to the preparation for the meaningful vote later this month.
Instead, the dominant characteristics of recent British politics – stasis in negotiations and the delay of key decisions until a later date – look set to continue as another supposedly decisive moment passes, because they speak to a deeper and more foundational weakness in British politics.
By Dr George Hoare, member of The Full Brexit.