IT’S almost too good to be true. That the great Brexit saga seems at last to be coming to an end. By the end of this week, if all the buzz is borne out, a summit in Brussels will outline a solution to the problem in Northern Ireland which is acceptable to both London and Dublin, and therefore to every other member of the EU.

And yet – has anybody asked the Democratic Unionist Party? As a matter of fact, they have, and the harrumphing answer was not hopeful, but we will only be able to cross that bridge when we come to it. Of course, this column cannot say for certain whether the optimistic scenario will turn out to be the real one, any more than others can say. The tightest of seals has been placed on what in Brussels they call the tunnel – you can see who goes into the talks, you will hear what comes out, but in between there is to outsiders never a chink of light nor a whisper of sound.

Predictions range from a betrayal of Ulster (this is DUP-speak) to the reduction of the whole Brexit deal to the simplest possible free-trade agreement, so that much of the time spent in detailed bargaining during the last 40 months will have been wasted. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed? On the contrary, we might accept in limp gratitude the few things we can agree, and wait on a sadder and a wiser time to resolve the rest.

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That is to say the many topics that cannot be included in a high-speed slimmed-down Brexit will be relegated until after the UK is out of the EU (sort of). In 2020, new talks would then start, for that part of the big Brexit not entailed by this bland Brexit. Perhaps they will finally end some time in the 22nd century.

So, from next week, we may be talking about different things entirely, in which case today’s column could offer me the last chance to look back to the EU referendum in 2016 and try to guess what are likely to turn out the most permanent shifts during the tremendous upheaval that has gone on since.

The day before that referendum, UK democracy still struck foreigners as stable, not totally unquestioned indeed, but with neither the party system, the Westminster parties nor – least of all – the monarchy under any serious stress. We have lurched heedlessly through the long crisis, as one by one these formerly revered national institutions have been fed into the Brexit mincer.

In a single column, I only have space for one topic, so let’s go for the party system. It was long thought integral to the stability of UK politics, just because it was a two-party system. The Tories had the better of it during the 20th century but still there were lengthy periods when the opposition – the Liberals from 1906, Labour from 1945 – got their own way in running the country.

They dealt in short order with problems that had piled up under the preceding Tory torpor, before the voters decided that was enough and preferred to let problems start piling up again ready for the next turn of the wheel. This may not be the quickest way to deal with social and economic complexities, but other nations which sought a more direct approach often came a cropper. Alternation turned out to be a proxy for reliability and solidity, which in turn are the best guarantees of progress.

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Now it seems impossible for the two-party system to be restored, simply because there are no longer two parties capable of winning General Elections. Alright, Boris and his Brexiteers could gain a bare majority if we go to the polls on the back of a Brexit bolstered by the summit in Brussels next week. But there is no sign of any mass popular conversion to the Corbynistas. That came three years ago and passed its peak without any other decisive victory for the left. Now the trend is rather in the opposite direction. Stretches of the UK have been lost or are being lost to third parties, from the SNP in Scotland to the Greens in Sussex, from the DUP in Ulster to the Brexit Party ripening amid the soft fruits of East Anglia. So there can be no further alternation in the old sense. Instead, fragmentation is the future, fitting the bill of a bitty, broken Britain.

Until 2014, politics had been haunted by the question of whether a new party could break a Tory-Labour duo that seemed more and more inadequate and unsatisfactory. From one direction an answer had come in the 1980s with the Social Democratic Party of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, but it soon flopped.

Later, from the opposite direction, came Ukip, with its origins in unsavoury fringe groups, which at last scared David Cameron (below) into holding the EU referendum. That was quite a coup, and it has led on to all the other troubles, yet without giving the fringe a breakthrough into the Westminster Parliament.

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Now, in addition to the old question of whether a new party is possible or desirable, we have a new question – whether any of the old parties can stay the rocky course of the 21st century.

On each side of the two-party divide the churches used to be broad. The traditional Conservative Party had a right wing that was imperialist rather than economic, and a left wing happy to live with the welfare state – you could say, in today’s process terms, ranging from Sir Nicholas Soames to Ken Clarke. Now both Soames and Clarke have been expelled by the current regime, the exact nature of which is still being defined. It looks unpleasant, but its main emotive force among the voters, at least south of the Border, seems to be a nostalgic English nationalism.

Meanwhile, Labour are captured by a left wing at last given full rein for its instinct to stay up all night compositing motions and referring them back. This is today no more capable of achieving power than it ever was, and has the effect of making Jeremy Corbyn look even more remote than he is in his personal nature from the daily concerns of the punters.

It is difficult to see the displacement therapy winning him a majority in the House of Commons. A Labour-led coalition is the best he might hope for, but even this appears to be excluded by his numberless principles. As it is, he has said he will step down if he cannot win the next election, and this is clearly the best prospect for those many colleagues of his who are more able than he is. In the meantime, however, there’s the prospect that after we have voted we will be saddled with Labour as the largest party, but with every chance of getting deposed as soon as they try, for example, to push through £300 billion worth of nationalisation.

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In this case, it would have to be a leader of the firmest conviction that would rule out some mutually beneficial arrangement with the SNP. It may not go as far as a coalition, to salve tender consciences, but it surely would, as an absolute minimum, need to include indyref2. With a second opinion poll indicating SNP support at around 50%, the conference in Aberdeen is buoyed up by the prospect.

Still, getting a referendum remains a far cry from winning it. We can do so on the back of Brexit, but we need more than that to make sure. Project Fear has hardly stirred yet. No doubt it will be as dishonest next time as it was last time. It is not enough for the 45% to shout louder, we need to reach outside of their limits.

We must appeal beyond the socialism of west-central Scotland because the rest of the country is not very socialist. We must appeal to women – not the purple-haired nose-ringed feminists, but douce housewives and widows. We must appeal to the non-manual workforce to which two-thirds of us belong. And then maybe, just maybe, Scotland will win its freedom.