No matter how much you might wish for a return for business as usual in Westminster, politics has changed for good. There is no putting Brexit back in its bottle, or the even more powerful forces that it represents, and future historians will look back on these years as the beginning of a new era of profound radicalism in politics and in society.
We’ve been here once before.
Few, if any, would have foreseen in the early 1640s what would happen over the next decade and a half: the monarchy and House of Lords were both abolished, a King lost his head, radical proposals emerged for universal suffrage, a group began the collective farming of private land, a religious minority - dominated by a group who believed in the second coming of Jesus Christ in 1666 - took control and appointed a group of nominees from religious congregations to replace the House of Commons, the country had its only two written constitutions and then it fell under the grip of a military dictatorship.
Yet England didn’t fall under the sway of the most radical elements in this period. Power resided with the grandees of the New Model Army – landowning conservatives who moved swiftly to quell any notion of social reform.
They hadn’t wanted any of this. The landed elite’s prime concern before the Civil War was to contain the powers of the King and to have more of a say over the direction of the country politically, economically and religiously. They only killed Charles I when he stubbornly refused to negotiate even when defeated militarily.
It was these same army grandees who realised that Parliament, which had failed for three years to make any progress in negotiation with the truculent Charles I, would never make progress and that in order to avoid a return to the previous regime, they would need to purge Parliament of royalists and Presbyterians in order to break the stalemate. And that’s what they did: the military barred access to named MPs, and the remaining rump of MPs voted for the trial and execution of the King. Problem temporarily solved.
Boris Johnson finds himself in a similar position to these army grandees. He needs to find a way to break his own stalemate and in a modern sense execute his own clean break, this time with the EU, if he is to avoid a return to the status quo.
In this revolutionary context I wouldn’t rule out any options, however remarkable or fanciful they may seem. We may even hear the name of Kamal El-Hajji, the Serjeant-at-Arms, dragged into the narrative if the Prime Minister refuses to accede to demands to seek an extension to the withdrawal agreement. One way or another the stalemate will need to be broken.
But whatever happens this autumn, history tells us that once the stalemate is broken, there will be a search for the future narrative of this country - constitutionally, politically, economically and socially - and that it will play out over a long period of radical experimentation – decades, not years.
Just like the grandees of the 1640s, the grandees of the 2010s don’t yet have a settled vision of what this new Britain will look like, and just like in the 1640s the long-fermenting dissatisfaction over the preceding several decades means that people have wildly differing expectations of what they think will be delivered - there is certainly no consensus about the vision of post-Brexit Britain.
As has been said many times before, people voted for Brexit for many different reasons, but in various respects it was a war on the status quo: ending austerity and the jurisdiction of the EU elite over the UK elite, a dislike of broken, corrupt politics, a chance to be a great trading nation, a desire to have more money in our pockets, a chance for a bigger say on the future.
Radicalism is widespread across the political spectrum – think of Extinction Rebellion or Momentum – but equally so is conservatism. There is a dislike of liberal reforms and a desire for libertarianism, an appetite to pare back the role of the state in the life of the individual, and a faintly romantic notion of an untrammelled, bucaneering spirit in a new global age.
A future up for grabs
This fragmentation is difficult to manage in a modern democracy, particularly in our "make it up as you go along" unwritten constitutional system. We’ve already seen Johnson jettison some radical Brexit loyalists, libertarians like Steve Baker who would bring an alternative and radical view of communities and their prospects for success. We can expect more factionalism once the UK has left the EU as the battle for direction of the country unfolds.
Looking back, the radical experimentation of the 1640s and 1650s led to much innovation. The fomentation of religious radicalism and ideas of individual liberty played their part in the ideological foundation of the USA over a century later, with its written Constitution drawing on the writings of the Levellers. The seeds were sown for the rise of England (later Britain) as a naval power, and the development of constitutional monarchy.
In modern society, what could this radicalism look like? A written constitution and a reshaping of the instruments of government? A lowering of regulations and a clear focus on promoting the success of local businesses? Big infrastructure investment? A focus on cyber warfare? A new economic colonialism that involves heavy investment in selected emerging economies? A radical focus on addressing inequality? It could just as easily see big swings between a big state and a small state as different factions hold sway.
This period of flux can appear daunting for business, but it can offer an important moment to try new things. Politicians will be listening for ideas that can capture the imagination of some swathe of the population, particularly new business models that can do something different out of the wreckage of the status quo - everything is up for grabs for business. It is a moment to cast aside the rule book, convention and what has gone before and push hard to develop a new narrative out of the ashes of the old.
Image credit: Elliott Brown/Flickr (Creative Commons)