Following the result of last week’s elections to appoint Members of the European Parliament, the response in Britain has been one which has become all too common over the last couple of years: all sides are claiming victory.
It happened after the 2017 general election, when the Conservative party won the greatest share of seats, and took a higher percentage of the total votes than Labour. But the party still lost enough seats to leave it unable to form a government without help from elsewhere, after the narrow majority won under David Cameron just two years earlier was wiped out.
Labour, meanwhile, claimed that they were the big election winners, having significantly boosted the number of seats held in Parliament, which included taking a number of constituencies formerly held by the Conservatives.
In the two years since, the dominant political split has been more related to one’s stance on the issue of European Union membership, with party politics becoming very much a matter of secondary importance.
And the Brexit issue has not been without its own occasions on which people from both sides of the debate have used the same event to claim justification for their stance.
A recent documentary, Brexit Behind Closed Doors, gave a fly-on-the-wall look at negotiations from a European perspective.
It presented an often negative view of the British negotiating team, and one which was consistent with the arrogant view of certain high profile Leave campaigners ahead of the referendum, who had argued that Britain would basically be able to get what it wants from negotiations due to the country’s importance to the rest of the European Union.
For “Remain” voters, the program backed up a view of how little effort was made by senior British politicians to work towards a credible plan that could work for both Britain and Europe, and the casual manner in which the negotiations were handled by those whose very job it was to help deliver a mutually-agreeable deal.
Amongst “Leave” voters, however, there was anger at scenes in which European-based politicians expressed a growing frustration concerning the way in which Britain was conducting negotiations. This was seen as definitive proof of the perceived contempt with which politicians in Brussels are alleged to have had for the UK, and a reason why the country needed to speed up its EU exit.
The 2017 General Election has also been cited frequently for reasons relating to Brexit, with Leave campaigners using the election result as proof of the nation’s desire to see MPs “deliver on Brexit”.
Both major parties stated that they would honour the result of the referendum, and with more than 80% of voters giving support for these parties, it was, apparently, further proof of the nation’s desire for MPs to take Britain out of the EU.
But the same election results were seen very differently on the other side of the Brexit divide, where the loss of Conservative seats was said to show that there was declining support for leaving the EU, and that a much poorer performance at the general election was a sign that the public no longer wanted to support the course of action being pursued by Theresa May’s government.
Much worse was to follow for the two leading parties at the local elections earlier this month, with the loss of more than 1,400 council seats across the country, the vast majority of which were Conservative councillors.
Those in support of leaving the EU suggested it was conclusive proof that the country wanted to leave the EU; that the country’s biggest parties were being “punished” for a failure to resolve the Brexit issue.
And on the other side, remain-favouring analysts argued that the defection of votes to the likes of the Liberal Democrats and Green Party backed up other events in showing a surge in support for either a “People’s Vote” – or complete revocation of Article 50 in order to keep Britain in the EU.
Similarly contradictory conclusions have been taken from the European election results announced last night.
The Brexit Party were always expected to be take the biggest share of the votes and deliver the greatest number of MEPs from the United Kingdom, so there was no surprise that they won 29 seats, compared to the next highest party tally of 16 for the Liberal Democrats.
A clear victory, surely.
Perhaps not so clear if arguing that voters wanting to leave the EU only had one or two serious options (depending on whether the Conservatives still enjoy any support from Leave voters on the issue of Europe) and that votes were destined to be concentrated towards The Brexit Party, while voters on the remain side were always likely to be split up across a number of distinct parties.
Given the high level of support within the Labour party for a second referendum, and the dominance of The Brexit Party in traditional Labour areas where Leave voters in particular have become disillusioned, it’s highly unlikely that Labour would have attracted a high proportion of votes for the European elections from many voters who strongly support leaving the EU.
What then shows in the voting figures, excluding Conservatives and Labour for whom the voting intention is more difficult to determine, is that there were collectively a higher number of votes for parties explicitly fighting for Britain to remain a member of the European Union or, at the very least, for the public to be given another vote before a final decision is made.
Depending on how the results are interpreted, there is therefore opportunities for people representing conflicting viewpoints to make a case for having performed better.
But in all of these political games, the only thing which can honestly be concluded is that Britain is highly divided, and that the split between those wishing to leave the EU, and those who don’t, is positioned more or less down the middle of the country in terms of the strength of feeling on each opposing side of the debate.
The details, often filled in by politicians and other high-profile individuals who claim to speak on behalf of an entire half of the population, cannot be considered as much more than speculation when referring to any great numbers of the electorate.
It’s long since been clear that no one in power is able to speak on behalf of all of the 17.4 million who voted for Britain to leave the EU, and with so many versions presented of how a departure from the EU would – or could – look, it’s never been possible to label one single plan as being “the will of the people”.
The complexities have been highlighted in Parliament, where a much smaller number of people cannot find a common ground which delivers a satisfactory answer to the question of how to deliver Brexit.
At the start of the process, the assumption by all members was that a deal would be negotiated by the Government which would help Britain leave in an orderly manner, and with any short-term damage to the country kept to a minimal.
That was the starting point in Parliament, and the basis on which members voted overwhelmingly to support the implementation of Brexit.
Those who have since moved from their original stance have done so based on how negotiations have been conducted.
Politicians who, despite initially wanting to remain, were genuinely willing to honour the referendum result and work towards securing a good deal have, over time, seen the difficulty in achieving anything resembling the claims made in the run-up to the referendum, and have expressed concern over the consequences for Britain if proceeding with the deal which has ultimately been negotiated and presented to Parliament.
Their fight to give another vote to the public is as much of a recognition that the terms on which Brexit was promoted are not possible to achieve, and that in the absence of a solution by Parliamentarians, the public should once again be given a say.
Meanwhile, a significant group of politicians who voted to Leave have become frustrated at a deal which retains closer ties with Europe than they would like. In the absence of a deal which can deliver the kind of benefits promised to voters during the campaigning, they have drifted towards fighting for a more brutal split from Europe, having rejected the deal put to a vote in the House of Commons by Theresa May.
Although claimed that “no deal” delivers on what the British people voted for, it’s also the case that it was never expected to be the outcome – and certainly was not the position which was used by the Leave campaign to make their case for Brexit.
Also, just as each of the two major parties stated their intention to honour the result of the 2016 referendum, it’s also true that the Labour manifesto detailed the party’s opposition to leaving the European Union without a deal. When combining the percentage of votes won by Labour with the votes for other parties who were not willing to consider leaving the EU without a deal, the outcome was that more than 52.5% of votes went to parties opposing a no deal Brexit.
Yet, in winning the largest number of votes of any party standing at the European election, The Brexit Party’s victory has been interpreted as indicative of the country’s clear preference for a “no deal” outcome – despite the fact that the 5.2 million votes received by the party during the elections is less than a third of the number of votes cast in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Whether the European election results contribute to a greater likelihood of a no-deal scenario or not is something that will become clearer in the days and weeks to come. But with a hardening of stances that have become ever more polarised over the last three years, the country has never looked more divided.
Those occupying positions of influence may continue to talk as if their specific views are representative of a majority of the country, even if, by now, it should have become clear to most of the population that the complexities surrounding Brexit are such that no single person is genuinely able to speak on behalf of the majority.
But as the impasse has become more and more prolonged, a solution which addresses the problem without alienating half of the country seems to get further and further away.
And whilst both sides make claims of mini-victories, it’s at the expense of the United Kingdom as a whole, which continues to be the biggest loser in an ongoing crisis which threatens to cause irreversible damage to the country – if indeed such a stage hasn’t been reached already.