'When divisions are so deep, nobody is considered neutral' © Bloomberg

Bewildered foreigners often ask me what is happening to my country. This reminds me of my youth, when the UK was known as “the sick man of Europe”. This time their concern is not over the economy, but politics.

The surprise is also greater. British economic superiority faded long since. But how, they ask, has a country famed for stable and pragmatic parliamentary democracy fallen into such an embarrassing mess: a government unable to govern; the two main parties split; parliament cowering before “the will of the people” as determined by a referendum; politicians assailing officials, media assailing the judiciary — all happening in the hysterical atmosphere of a witch hunt? This does not seem British. British conservatism was once associated with the stiff upper lip. It now quivers with rage.

So what is going on? The answer is that the country is in the middle of a civil war. The EU referendum did not resolve this war: the two sides are too evenly matched and contemptuous of each other for that. The war is over the sort of country this is, maybe even over whether the UK is to be a country at all. True, this is a peaceful civil war. That is the abiding virtue of the democratic political process. But it is still a schism between irreconcilable opponents.

Civil war has happened in Britain before, in the 17th-century conflict over whether sovereignty lay with king or parliament. A more peaceful conflict accompanied the long march towards universal suffrage. We celebrated a milestone on that journey — the granting of votes to some women in 1918 — this week. The 20th-century conflict between labour and capital might have been far more brutal, without the unifying force of two world wars.

The conflict this time is over the UK’s destiny: over whether it is just another European country; over who determines laws binding on British people; over who decides who may live here; and over whether the European project is the path to a better future, or a socialist plot, a capitalist plot, or merely a plot against democratic sovereignty.

The most fascinating feature of the debate is that the far left and far right agree against the centre. They may agree on little else. But they concur that the EU is a conspiracy against parliamentary sovereignty — against the right of a temporary parliamentary majority to do as it pleases with the people. For a leftwing socialist, the aim is to create a socialist paradise. For a rightwing free-marketeer, it is to create a capitalist one. Either way, the EU is the enemy.

Successful parties must embrace the extremes, yet also spread far into the centre. That is why Brexit has split both parties. This is also why 20 months after the referendum and nearly 11 months after triggering Article 50, the government has barely discussed what Brexit means and the opposition has no idea what it ultimately desires. The public was persuaded to vote for departure, with next to no discussion of the destination. This was no accident. The various Brexit factions know what they wanted to leave; they have no shared view of where they want to go.

The intensity of feeling is also not so surprising. In part, the UK is victim of its past successes. A small offshore island became, temporarily, a superpower. It defined itself against Europe and, inevitably, against any power wishing to dominate Europe. In this, it found allies. Now, Europe is uniting while the UK is very much not a superpower. So what does it choose? Is it to be an irrelevant offshore island or a part of a united Europe? The choice has to be divisive.

When divisions are so deep, nobody is considered neutral. This is particularly true for the Brexiters, since they are the revolutionary and so the more passionate faction. Anybody not for them is against them. All the great institutions of the state, carefully designed to be neutral, have become suspect. A soi-disant conservative, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, becomes a weapon of constitutional destruction.

How will this end? The answer is that anything is possible. Could there still be a “no-deal Brexit”? Yes. Could there be another referendum? Yes. But the likelihood is that the UK will exit on terms laid down, in detail, by the EU. When a country is this divided and its political processes are in such disarray, someone else has to sort things out. The EU will do so, because that is in its interests.

The EU will not let the UK have its cake and eat it. It is led by people who also have a historical goal: not to return to the past. Their history was not British history and their aims are not British aims. They will determine the terms of the separation. We will then see whether the UK’s civil war is resolved, or renewed in other, yet more bitter, ways.

martin.wolf@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Give power back to Westminster, Mrs May / From Corrado Pirzio-Biroli, Brussels, Belgium

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