During an extraordinary week in the UK's House of Commons, 21 Conservative MPs chose to fall on their swords rather than compromise their principles by endorsing their prime minister's determination to frogmarch their country out of Europe. Through the stygian gloom that has blanketed political discourse in post-referendum Britain, this principled display of conviction politics was a rare and welcome flicker of light. Among the rebels were veteran and long-standing MPs such as Kenneth Clarke and Alistair Burt, politicians who have served their government to the best of their abilities.
Whether the sacrifice of the 21 will have been in vain remains to be seen. What is certain is that Britain’s parliamentary system, once a hallmark of respect and due process, is now in disarray.
Unlike most modern states, the UK lacks a codified constitution, relying instead on a melee of conventions, acts of parliament and court judgments. They have served the country successfully for centuries, but make up a fragile tapestry that now seems to be unravelling.
Each attempt to enact Brexit has been laden with pitfalls. When it has seemed that the nation could become no more bitterly polarised, events have proven otherwise, and so it has been this week.
In an historic vote on Tuesday, opposition parties and the 21 rebels joined forces to seize control of the parliamentary agenda. On Wednesday, parliament voted on whether to ask the EU for a Brexit extension. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, was expected to counter by calling for a general election.
In past weeks, there has been much talk of defending democracy. In reality, the British electorate has been treated to the unedifying sight of government and opposition alike manoeuvring for political advantage, guided not by principles but by self-interest.
It is difficult to see how the divisive wounds of Brexit can be healed. If it is prevented, or even delayed, half the country will feel they have been cheated. The result is likely to be greater support for emergent populist parties bent on pushing Britain towards the far right of the political spectrum.
If Brexit goes ahead in any form, every bump in the road will be laid at the door of the Brexiteers, ossifying the national debate for years to come.
It is 80 years since Britain entered the Second World War, an act of principle that cost it dear but helped to save the world. Today, Britain is engaged in a brutal civil war that is tearing at the very fabric of its society – a war triggered not by principle, but by a cynical and flawed calculation that a referendum would stem the rise of populist politics and preserve Conservative seats.
It is not too late to heal those divisions. As traumatic as it will doubtless be, it is just possible that a general election could be the first step on the UK’s long road back to recovery.
But this is a time for MPs to look to the example set by stalwarts of principle, to remember their pledge to represent the people who put them in office and to stand behind something they actually believe in. If they don't, Britain might yet be dragged even further into the abyss.