Britain Divided

Britain Divided

The political paralysis Britain is experiencing derives from the fact that the country is divided along at least two axes: left vs. right, Leave vs. Remain.

Theresa May after EU leaders agreed to postpone Brexit and article 50 on March 21 (Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

To begin with: Britain is a very divided society. That may sound anodyne—most Western societies today are divided by steep inequalities; surely Trump’s America is deeply divided too. But there is a special reason to insist on this in light of recent debates over Brexit, which have dwelled upon the micro-politics of parliamentary maneuver and, worse, tend to treat it as a problem of the “constitution”—an easy game to play, because there is no “constitution,” only a set of conventions, upon which anyone can opine. The Brexit problem, people pronounce, was all created by David Cameron’s foolish idea to call a referendum in 2015—against constitutional convention, which makes Parliament sovereign. Or, the failure to act upon the results of the referendum is all down to both Conservative and Labour politicians putting their party above their country and refusing to take a firm line on Brexit, or refusing to compromise—two quite distinct and incompatible diagnoses. Or, the failure to act is all down to the unrepresentative qualities of Parliament, which gives too much scope to both individual conscience and party discipline—again two distinct and incompatible diagnoses—and not enough to the “will of the people.”

I wish it were as simple as that! As if not calling the referendum would have put the European question to bed. As if the refusal to take a firm line on Brexit was only due to party discipline or the peculiarities of some party factions. As if a “compromise” would heal the underlying divisions. As if the “will of the people” were clear to anyone.

Instead, the political paralysis Britain is experiencing derives from the fact that the country is divided along at least two axes, which cut across each other. On the one hand, there is a traditional left-right axis, which still does fall into a Labour vote tending more to the disadvantaged and a Conservative vote tending more to the prosperous; formerly, this had more of a geographical dimension, north vs. south, though lately it has tilted more towards urban vs. suburban and rural. On the other hand, there is now a new Brexit axis, which divides a younger, better educated, more cosmopolitan electorate from an older, less well-educated, and more culturally conservative electorate. The cross-cutting of these two axes permits a multiplicity of partial analyses of the Brexit referendum. The vast majority of Labour party members are ardent Remainers! (True—but they are not representative of voters.) The vast majority of Labour voters are Remainers! (Truer now than two years ago, but as Labour hovers around only  35 percent in the polls it still needs to reach out to many more voters—most of whom, in its traditional strongholds, are Leavers—to win a majority.) Most Conservative constituencies voted Leave! (True, but so did most Labour constituencies.) Most Labour constituencies voted Leave! (True, but see above—the Labour voters in those constituencies were more likely to vote Remain.)

You can’t understand the results of the Brexit referendum unless you take all of these partial analyses into account. The Remain and Leave coalitions are each diverse, socially and politically. Remainers tend to be young and urban, but their urban constituency includes many prosperous professionals, young and old, as well as both socialists and moderate Tories. Leavers tend to be older and “left behind”—many in depressed, post-industrial areas, former Labour heartlands, slipping away from party politics altogether—but that older constituency includes many conventional Conservatives with very old-fashioned right-wing views. In the same way, Trump voters did have on average higher incomes than Clinton voters, but they also included key elements of poorer white voters in swing states. Assembling a new majority for the Democrats will require either winning some of them back or somehow amping up turnout elsewhere. Similarly, assembling a new majority for Labour will require either winning back some of the poorer Leavers or relying more on younger, better-educated voters in cities. Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising success in the 2017 general election managed to do both, but only by combining a commitment to Leave with socialist politics. That is one reason why he has stuck by his commitment to Leave—another is his own history as a socialist deeply suspicious of the capitalist European Union—thus disappointing his overwhelmingly Remainer membership and an increasingly Remainer electorate.

In these circumstances, it’s hard to see how any Parliament, however representative, could come up with a satisfactory resolution to the Brexit crisis. Neither would a general election clarify matters. If Labour did well, Corbyn would credit its performance to his ambivalent stance on Brexit; if the Conservatives did well, Theresa May would credit their performance to her “compromise” position on Brexit. It seems more likely, as polls indicate, that the two main parties would both do less well than they did in the 2017 election. They both benefited then from the collapse of the far-right UKIP vote; UKIP, happily, is in terminal disarray, and it’s unclear where those votes might go now. But hardly any voters seem happy with either Corbyn’s ambivalence or May’s compromise. And so we should not be too cynical about the fact that not many Members of Parliament are happy with them either. On Wednesday, Parliament staged a relatively free vote on a wider set of options—ranging from “no deal” to a second referendum—and couldn’t muster a majority for any of them. The extremes of “no deal” and Remain have limited support. But, rightly, so do various compromises—most of them (like May’s deal) based on the UK staying inside the EU’s trade arrangements, without any power to influence them, but symbolically “leaving” other jurisdictions such as the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. In this sense, Parliament’s paralysis reflects the nation’s.

This is not to let the politicians off the hook entirely. The most dismaying aspect of the whole fiasco has been the failure to face up to the complexity of these divisions over the last three years—indeed, over many years, as neither Labour nor the Conservatives did enough to address those groups and areas left behind by social and economic change (deindustrialization, stagnating wages, in-work poverty, widening gulfs between revived inner cities and their hinterlands and between those with and without university educations), by extreme inequality at the top, and by the effects of the 2008 crash. That’s why the referendum result should have come as a wake-up call. But it didn’t. Theresa May issued a clarion call to the “left behind” when she took office in 2016 but then did absolutely nothing to address their needs, except to negotiate her compromise withdrawal agreement, pleasing no one. Labour under Corbyn has more clearly tried out its own version of socialist populism, but this has been undercut by his Leave tendencies and his failure—strategic or ideological—to develop the more optimistic, outward-looking, pro-Europe argument that his core supporters want. A bolder combination of socialist populism and pro-Europeanism might still work—the big question is whether such a combination could keep or win more of those uprooted former UKIP voters—but it’s not a combination Corbyn could embrace, and it’s hard to see who else could emerge to offer it.

What could the politicians have done differently? They could at least have faced these divisions earlier. One of the least edifying elements of the debate has been the sneers that hard-line Leavers have routinely aimed at the EU negotiators for, as they alleged, playing a game of chicken that would wait until the very last minute—today, in fact, 29 March 2019, the date scheduled for the last thirty months for Britain to leave the EU—to reveal their true cards. “We know the Europeans,” they said, “they always leave things to the last minute.” It turns out that it is the British politicians who leave things to the last minute. The Europeans have been pretty consistent in refusing to adopt “special” compromises for the UK that would differ from the half-in, half-out statuses previously negotiated for Norway or Switzerland. They have been particularly and adamantly united in not conceding any special deals that would jeopardize Ireland’s full membership of the EU just to please British politicians who wanted to leave the EU but keep the Irish border open. It has been the British politicians who were playing a game of chicken, with themselves. May and Corbyn picked their “compromise” positions and refused to abandon them, even though it was perfectly clear from early on—well before May’s deal was turned down by a record Parliamentary majority—that there was never a majority for either of them. But neither would May nor Corbyn allow a free vote of Parliament to see what other possibilities might gain a majority, until just a few days ago, when Parliament temporarily wrested control from the government and organized its own vote, within a week of the planned exit date.

Now we have discovered that none of the other possibilities has a majority in Parliament either. Right now it is very hard to predict what might be the outcome. It could be that May’s game of chicken with the other MPs will prove successful in the end, and a bare majority will finally be assembled next week for her deal. It may be that the can will be kicked further down the road. There might be a general election. Perhaps a second referendum. But none of these outcomes, or others, even those that end with Brexit (May’s deal or “crashing out” without a deal when the EU loses patience), will address the underlying splits. They may actually exacerbate them, leading to unwonted economic turbulence, bitter voter disappointment, further disengagement, or a morbid new politics. To end with: Britain is a very divided society.


Peter Mandler teaches modern British history at Cambridge University. He has been writing for Dissent since 1985.

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