We are now experiencing the political consequences of a toxic mixture of incompetence and duplicity such as Britain has rarely known. It may be that all political careers end in failure, but Theresa the Unready seems likely to damage our national politics to a degree that is truly historic. This may be one of those moments that will merit more than merely a footnote in future history. Due to failure to carry out the referendum mandate, Brexit has brought to the surface and greatly aggravated social and cultural divisions in our society. It has shown the glaring weaknesses of our largest political parties. In the Conservative Party, the leadership has diverged from the membership. In the Labour Party the membership has diverged from the voters. Can these two Humpty Dumpties be put together again?
Ordinary elections are decided by floating voters. Even historic elections may turn on relatively small shifts: Labour’s 1945 landslide saw its share of the vote only 10 percent higher than in its 1930s doldrums, despite the upheavals of depression and war. Really momentous shifts – those that make or break generations of political predominance – depend not on floating voters or even on single elections, but on permanent changes among core supporters.
In many democracies, not only ours, the core remains faithful for generations, held together by solidarities, emotions, interests, family traditions, and regional loyalties. Big shifts in Britain have been few but historic. When the Whigs quarrelled over the French Revolution, they put William Pitt and his successors into office for the best part of forty years. When the Tories split over Corn Law repeal in 1846, a new Liberal Party based on Free Trade and Nonconformity remained predominant until the 1880s. When the Liberals broke up over Irish Home Rule in 1886, the Conservatives became the major force in politics for a generation. The Liberals’ slow decline resulted in near extinction after a split during the First World War led to their replacement as the main anti-Tory party by Labour in 1922. Labour’s rise was then crippled when it too split over supporting a coalition government in 1931.
These divisions permitted a long Conservative ascendency from Baldwin to May – some 65 years in office compared to Labour’s 38. This ascendency may now be ending, as in the previous examples I have mentioned, due to the party’s own action.
What do these major changes have in common? Underlying them is a build-up of political tensions and socio-economic changes. The Tory row over the Corn Laws was foreshadowed by bitter quarrels over Catholic emancipation, while the once unassailable landed interest was being overtaken by a rising urban population. The Liberal split over Home Rule followed a progressive radicalization of the party which marginalized its traditional element. Labour’s 1931 collapse stemmed from its inability to cope with the Depression. Our present troubles follow a long period of justified dissatisfaction with the EU, combined with a general crisis of democracy across the Western world in which we share.
To catalyse such underlying changes, there needs to be a crucial issue about which both active politicians and grass-roots voters feel sufficiently betrayed in both their interests and their sentiments that they are angry enough not only to rock the boat but to sink it completely. Such an issue was Sir Robert Peel’s scrapping of the Corn Laws, a threat to rural England and a reversal of electoral pledges: a leading back-bench rebel attacked him for ‘double-dealing with the farmers of England, betraying our constituents. What I cannot bear is being sold.’ Liberal unionists accused W.E. Gladstone of wilfully breaking up the United Kingdom and abandoning Irish Protestants. Labour activists tore down posters of Ramsay MacDonald as a traitor to the party. How can we not conclude that Mrs May has accumulated just such a range of grievances?
Sometimes there comes an unpredictable accident – trivial or serious – that makes a difficult situation unmanageable. The arrival of an unknown potato blight from America in 1845 forced Peel to rush to end the Corn Laws. The 1885 general elections gave the Irish Nationalists the exact number of seats to hold the balance of power, thus pushing Gladstone’s fateful offer of Home Rule. George V unexpectedly asked MacDonald to form an emergency National Government because the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin happened to be out of the country. May lost an election that she should easily have won.
The consequence in these historical cases was a long-term realignment of political forces, as traditional loyalties were renounced, local organizations broken up, and new alliances formed. Ingredients for such changes are only too visible today. The issue of Europe obviously combines the grass-roots toxicity of the Corn Law issue with the patriotic emotions aroused by the Irish Question, and therefore has the potential to remake the political landscape permanently.
Both the main parties, which benefited at the last general election from their seeming support for Brexit, are not only divided, but apparently contemplating overturning the referendum result and breaking their subsequent manifesto commitments to respect it. Nullifying clear popular votes, both by the pressure of propaganda and by political delays and manoeuvres, has thrown our whole political system into question and taken us into wholly uncharted territory. For the first time since the 18th century, a substantial part of our political class seems to have placed its primary loyalty beyond our shores.
Labour are only able to maintain a show of unity around a transparently unworkable policy as long as they do not have to make any decisions. Their party membership supports the EU as a sort of progressive shibboleth; their leadership knows that socialist policies are impossible within the EU; and a large part of their electorate are pro-Brexit, especially in the marginal seats they need to win to have any chance of governing.
The Tories are openly in a state of division of a sort certainly not seen at least since before the First World War, and are utterly paralysed by having a leader who commands no confidence and yet is not removed from office. It is unacceptable that internal party rules about leadership elections should have come to play such a decisive role in our whole constitutional system.
A fraudulent fudge such as the two party leaderships seem to be contemplating, would not bring closure, but it would ingrain Brexit as the central fact of political life in Britain indefinitely. We risk years of recrimination, political and hence economic chaos, and an unpredictable political future.
By 2022, imagine Labour, having lost much of its Midland and Northern electorate, reduced to a mainly London party, merely one of a constellation of Left-wing and nationalist parties mainly representing the public-sector middle class; a small New European Party hopelessly wedded to membership of an increasingly crisis-ridden EU; and a rump Conservative Party fighting the Brexit Party for votes.
Yet surely the Tories have the means not only of surviving, but even of winning: by carrying out a genuine Brexit and making it work. But they are in a zombie-like state, aware that they face possibly terminal disaster, yet unable to save themselves. Only if this changes soon can they master the present crisis and even benefit from it, as they benefitted from those in the 1880s, the 1920s and the 1930s.