Written by Robin Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.
It is hard to describe the depths of the poison that the tedious Brexit battle has injected into British life. It has deeply divided families, partners, towns, companies and regions of the country in a manner reminiscent of our own flirtation with national ruin.
Fortunately, in our case there were several statesmen and women who pulled us back from the collective abyss after the pain of referenda and Meech and Charlottetown. Let’s hope their successors are up to the challenge of Western anger today.
The election of a strong Boris Johnson majority in the U.K. is a classic good news, bad news outcome. The good news is that the parliamentary bloodshed over the Brexit terms will soon be over. The bad news is that that will launch 18 to 24 months of bitter transition bargaining with the EU.
It took us nearly eight years to deliver the CETA trade agreement with willing EU partners on most sides. How willing will French president Emmanuel Macron be to grant Johnson a free glass of champagne let alone trade terms favourable to the U.K.? The bitter awakening of the British public that they were conned by most of their political class about how long and painful this process was necessarily going to be, will take some real statesmanship to navigate.
They have Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative Prime Minister Johnson still in their chairs, while the impressive Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson lost her seat and her job.
But there is good news and bad here too. The good news is that Johnson’s large majority will mean he can ask seasoned political figures to join him in cabinet. Instead, he will probably keep most of his anti-European attack dogs. The good news is, as well, that this large majority gives him an opportunity to push through his social justice legislation; to deliver for, as he put it, his “borrowed” Labour voters. The bad news, he won’t.
Corbyn, as one Labour grandee, Lord Blunkett said “ … should at least apologize.” Instead, he has promised to hang around for months. Already his faction is defending its role in the worst defeat for Labour since 1935, and the loss of much of working class Midlands bastions, claiming that they were not socialist enough.
Reconciling a divided nation is the true test of leadership. Its needs are often in direct conflict with those of partisanship. In the U.K., it will require leaders from other parts of the community to nudge partisans on each side into less divisive postures.
In Canada, we can hope that the partisan blood sport of a Tory leadership race will not be turned to dividing the country. Perhaps outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer can now play the role of party and nation uniter, in the face of the inevitable trench warfare of an open leadership fight. I wouldn’t bet the rent.
The Liberals and the NDP will need to resist the temptation to force progressive climate change legislation over Western opposition. Every effort to find paths to peace on those issues with Saskatchewan and Alberta must come first.
This could be one of those moments when Canada again demonstrates its commitment to “mutual accommodation” in Bill MacDonald’s immortal words; where a new generation of Canadian leaders lays a path to a new collaborative federalism. We should push them down that path.
Unless Johnson names some senior Tories who will defend a role for Britain in Europe and the world, who want to build a bridge across Brexit, Tory infighting will erupt again.
If Labour quickly dispatches its most divisive leader in a generation for someone younger and more comfortable battling today’s challenges, not merely enemies from the ’70s, it can begin to rebuild. If not, then the fissures opened by three and half years of bitter Brexit battle could begin to widen again.
Then, for a return to a more stable and peaceful U.K., there is only prayer.