British Politics after Brexit
How significant will the UK’s vote to leave the European Union turn out to be? Will our politics carry on broadly as before, or are we on the cusp of a major shift in the very fabric Britain itself? Andrew Gamble weighs up the options.
British politics has been turned upside down since the General Election in 2015. Against the expectations of markets, bookies, polls and commentators, as well as of David Cameron and his closest associates, the election gave the Conservatives a small overall majority. Labour made some gains in England but lost almost all its Scottish seats, one of its core heartlands, to the Scottish National Party. The Liberal Democrats collapsed to four seats, while the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), although winning four million votes, only secured the election of a single MP. It was an extraordinary triumph and vindication for David Cameron, the first time an incumbent government after serving a full term had increased its share of both votes and seats since Anthony Eden in 1955. The government had presided over austerity and a weak economic recovery, but still managed to come out on top, with the opposition fragmented. Yet in little over a year David Cameron had resigned, his plans for a graceful exit in 2019 in ruins.
The cause of this sudden change of fortune was the referendum on Britain’s EU membership which Cameron had initially agreed to as a way of buying some time and in the vain hope that his party might finally stop ‘banging on about Europe’. The unexpected result of the 2015 election obliged him to hold the referendum and since Cameron had many things he wanted to do in his final years in government, he decided to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, believing that a vote for Remain could be delivered, especially since the weight of business and establishment opinion was so strongly in favour. Electorates across the world rarely vote in national referendums against the status quo. Part of the hubris that led to Cameron’s downfall was his belief that despite years of playing the Eurosceptic to please his party and the anti-EU media he could conduct a transparently thin and embarrassingly brief ‘renegotiation’ and then announce his conversion to being a passionate advocate of Britain remaining in the EU.
The Remainers lost, but the Brexiters did not inherit. The Conservative party, renowned for the ruthlessness with which it changes its leaders, exceeded even its own reputation. After scenes which resembled the last act of Hamlet the only body still standing was Theresa May, whose great virtue was that she was considered a safe pair of hands. She was duly elected unopposed, without the need to involve the members. Although she had voted Remain she had not played a prominent part in the campaign, and once installed as Prime Minister quickly set out to reassure the party that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. She divided the Foreign Office into three departments and appointed three prominent Brexiters to run them. She also purged most of Cameron’s closest allies, including George Osborne and Michael Gove, from the Government.
The circumstances of May’s ascent made her government, like John Major’s in 1990, feel like a new government. She enjoyed an extended honeymoon, with high personal approval ratings and an increasingly supportive press, helped by the disarray of her political opponents. The fears of many Conservative Leavers that in office Theresa May would not pursue a hard Brexit but would compromise have been dispelled. Although she has said little in detail about her intentions every major speech she has made, particularly at the Conservative party Conference in October 2016 and at Lancaster House in January 2017, she has been very clear about her priorities. To secure her premiership and keep her party together she knows she has to deliver a form of Brexit that will assuage Conservative Brexiters. May defines Brexit as taking back control of laws, borders, and the UK budget. A sovereign country, she argues, has control of all these things, so this is the minimum that Brexit must deliver. Once Britain has been extricated from the treaties pooling sovereignty, then the British Government can negotiate as with any other foreign state for a trade deal. In those negotiations the British Government can make concessions on movement of people or any other matter in order to secure a deal. But it will be a negotiation between sovereign states not as a member of a union bound by common rules.
Continuity or change?
Brexit has dominated British politics since the referendum, and is likely to go on dominating for the rest of this Parliament and even beyond. This is frustrating for May and her team who do not want to be remembered just for Brexit. They have a broad agenda for changing Britain, which involves greater reliance on the state to create a ‘shared society’, dealing with the grievances of those who feel they have been ignored, removing obstacles to social mobility, and increasing the availability of well-paid jobs through an industrial strategy. It aims for a more socially conservative and retro Britain, with plans to open new grammar schools, reduce the numbers of immigrants and set limits to cultural diversity. The difficulty the Government is already encountering is that it is very hard to change the subject from Brexit, yet delivering Brexit cannot be done quickly. Many citizens who voted Leave want Brexit to happen without delay, and cannot understand why it all has to take so long. Business lobbies on the other hand are pressing for an extended timetable for the initial negotiations and then lengthy transition arrangements to make the change as smooth as possible.
The political risk for the Government is that the more they listen to business lobbies in order to protect jobs and prosperity, the more those who voted Leave will start wondering whether the decision to leave the EU has made any difference at all. Britain’s already semi-detached status in the EU does not help in this respect. If Britain was a member of the eurozone or had signed the Schengen agreement then the decisions to leave the euro and reintroduce the pound, or to reimpose hard borders, would provide quick and easy symbolic reassurance that Britain had left the EU. But with Brexit very few citizens will be able to tell what difference it has made. The continuing flow of goods, capital and immigrants is likely to be more than many of the people voting Leave were expecting. In some instances they may be higher, because to negotiate new trade agreements the UK will have to be prepared to offer to abandon many regulatory and environmental protections, and to reduce taxation, potentially weakening still further the fiscal basis of its welfare state. Promoting a global Britain and at the same time a more sharing society will pull in opposite directions, and appeal to different parts of the coalition of Leave voters.
Brexit offers the possibility both that everything may change and that nothing may change. Stepping away from the most important external treaties which have defined Britain’s place in the world for 40 years, offers the chance of rethinking the British economic model. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is resurrecting a much diluted version of the Bennite alternative economic strategy of the 1970s and 1980s, which proposed a state-led industrial strategy, much higher levels of taxation, and capital and trade controls. The present British economic model is heavily dependent on personal and corporate debt, high immigration, flexible labour markets and low taxation. Britain is already an outlier in the EU as far as the European social model is concerned.
One possible outcome of the negotiations with the EU, is that both sides ultimately compromise on arrangements that do as little damage as possible and therefore mean as little change as possible. The political question is whether that compromise is acceptable either in the EU or in the UK. Given the number of players and institutions involved the scope for mistakes, miscalculations and breakdown is large. Keeping all parts of the Tory party and voters happy, as well as the business community and Conservative newspapers is a herculean task. May has so far resisted strengthening her personal authority by calling an early general election. But delay until 2020 carries its own dangers because of the uncertain outcome of the Brexit negotiations, and the already cloudy economic prospects, with a falling pound, higher inflation, weak productivity, squeezed living standards, further spending cuts, and a high and increasing deficit.
This political situation creates a golden opportunity for a strong opposition. But Labour is currently experiencing one of its periodic existential crises. It has lost touch with many of its core working class voters, who no longer identify with Labour in the way they once did. This is not a specifically British problem; centre-Left parties are struggling across Europe. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 is a symptom of Labour’s predicament rather than a cause of it, but the Corbyn leadership has done little so far to arrest Labour’s decline and by further undermining the coalition of interests and voters upon which the party depends, may be accelerating it.
As in Scotland in 2015, no Labour seat in England is currently safe. To remake the Labour party in his image Corbyn needs to replace at least two thirds of the current MPs and party officials. But the civil war this would provoke would further weaken the party as an effective political force. Labour’s predicament is reflected in its position on Brexit. Two thirds of Labour voters voted Remain, but 70 per cent of Labour constituencies voted Leave, many by wide margins. Labour’s cosmopolitan vote and its traditional working class vote have become divided, and finding a way to reunite them has so far eluded the party. Corbyn is against the single market but supports free movement, managing to upset both Leave and Remain voters simultaneously. He proposes to tackle the problem of immigration by preventing employers using immigrant workers to undercut British workers, but this lacks Ukip’s visceral appeal to cut the numbers.
Ukip and the Liberal Democrats have much clearer positions on Brexit, and squeeze Labour from both sides. The Liberal Democrats has positioned themselves as the anti-Brexit party, appealing to all those who oppose the decision to Leave and want to reverse it. Their support is beginning to recover, as indicated by their success in the Richmond by-election and council by-elections. Ukip under its new leader Paul Nuttall, are the party of Brexit-plus, and are seeking to ride the populist wave and gain more MPs. They aim to supplant Labour as the party of the northern working class, with a nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-liberal message similar to that crafted by Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, although so far they have not espoused protectionism. If Labour fails to hold them at bay a lasting realignment of British politics becomes possible.
Another big question after Brexit is whether the vote will reignite the drive for independence in Scotland, given the strong vote there for Remain. Since the referendum, support for independence has not increased in the opinion polls, and the SNP leadership is wary of calling another referendum unless it can be sure of winning. The risk of a hard border with England and the currently low oil price make the economic costs of independence very high. But if the Westminster Government delivers a hard Brexit, that will increase the likelihood of Scotland at some stage choosing independence, whatever the economic cost. By underlining the increasing separateness of Scotland and England, Brexit may yet bring about the sundering of two unions. It also puts the peace agreement in Northern Ireland in jeopardy if it imposes a hard border with the Republic. If it does not there will be a backdoor for EU citizens to enter the UK.
A special relationship?
How significant will the Brexit vote turn out to be? That will depend not just on events in Britain itself but on changes elsewhere. One source of uncertainty is the Trump presidency in the US which puts question marks over the future of NATO and the western alliance, but also suggests a new phase in the Anglo-American special relationship, something which Brexiters have seized on with delight. The old dream of Anglo-America, a union of the English-speaking peoples, freeing Britain from dependence on Europe, is reviving yet again. It has always proved a mirage before, and this time is likely to be no different. Trump is an American nationalist with no interest in constructing a new world order with nostalgic imperialists.
Britain is likely to end up once more stranded uneasily between Europe and America in a new era of trade wars and protectionism. Meanwhile the EU is facing serious challenges of its own, and renewed crisis over the euro or over immigration could propel one or more of the nationalist populist parties into power, leading to new referendums and the potential breakup of the EU in its present form. That would change dramatically the opportunities and risks facing Britain. Alternatively, the challenge of Brexit might spur the EU to regain some internal cohesion and purpose by integrating further. That would pose its own dilemmas for Britain, with its perennially weak and dependent economy. It might not be long before a British Chancellor started shadowing the euro, as Nigel Lawson shadowed the Deutschmark in the 1980s, or applied to rejoin the European Economic Area.
Andrew Gamble is emeritus professor of politics at Cambridge University and author of numerous books on British and international politics.