This “Brexit Election” Exposes Britain’s Political Malaise
Philip Cunliffe and Lee Jones
14 November 2019
Ostensibly called to resolve Britain’s Brexit crisis, the 2019 general election is primarily reminding us why the crisis exists. The Leave parties lack real vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future, while the Remain parties refuse to seize the democratic opportunity offered by Brexit to transform the country.
Britain has now embarked on its second general election since the referendum of 2016. This is happening while we still remain a member state of the European Union (EU), despite it being over three years since a majority of British citizens voted to leave. We are still trapped in the flat and empty platitudes offered by former Prime Minister Theresa May on the eve of the 2017 General Election, in which she said that “Brexit means Brexit”. There is still no substantive vision of what post-Brexit Britain should look like. Why is this, and what does it mean for our political future?
Much of this is doubtless the fault of the Remain forces and their relentless campaigning to delegitimise, halt and eventually reverse British withdrawal from the EU. To shore up the pre-Brexit ancien regime, Remainers have persistently belittled the rationality and capacity of ordinary voters while also depicting lurid scenarios of a post-Brexit future, featuring economic collapse, racist authoritarianism, imperial nostalgia, permanent austerity and rapacious American corporations. Ironically, for all that pro-Remain campaigners have fulminated against Brexiteer “fascism” and demagogy, it is the campaign for a “People’s Vote” – another referendum – that has ensnared British politics in a raucous plebiscitary populism, awash with menacing visions of dystopia, xenophobic rumours of foreign subversion, and conspiracy theories of “dark money” and “Russian bots”. While they ludicrously accuse their rivals of seeking to restore the vanished glories of the British Empire, their no less fantastical aim is to restore the lost status quo ante of 23 June 2016.
Yet, ultimate responsibility for the lack of any positive vision for Brexit Britain must rest with Leavers themselves, especially the Leave campaign leadership: Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The prime minister’s electoral pitch is to “deliver” Brexit, and to “get Brexit done”, promising to end the prevarication, to put Brexit behind us and restore a sense of national balance and harmony in place of bitter divisions. Although the specious optimism of “sun-lit uplands” may now be gone, the prospect of putting Brexit behind us betrays the fact that there is still no substantive vision of what Britain should look like outside of the EU. The most that has been offered from pro-Brexit campaigners is the promise of free trade deals – as if citizens voted to Leave in order to secure cheaper cornflakes, rather than to take control of our collective destiny.
Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” then focus on “things that matter to the public” betrays a belief that Brexit itself does not matter to the public. It indicates no real grasp of the transformative demand encapsulated by the Leave vote. The Tories have been willing to implement the result in order to save their own hides, entailing a substantial change to the status quo; but as conservatives they simply lack the radicalism required to realise the full potential of leaving the EU (see Analysis #22 - Who Shall Rouse Him Up? Brexit: The World Turned Upside Down).
The Brexit Party has sought to address the UK’s democratic deficit more substantially, with five policies to embed greater representation in our political system, including tantalising proposals to abolish the House of Lords and usher in proportional representation. Yet, despite this, it remains a creature of our national impasse. Despite its outward commitment to democracy, it has no internal democracy. The Brexit Party is, in fact, registered as a company, and it has the authoritarian structure of a corporation rather than that of a democratic political party. It has registered supporters, but no members. Its leadership can make decisions without reference to anyone else, even the party’s own parliamentary candidates, as shown in Farage’s pre-emptory announcement that he was standing down 307 of them in Tory seats.
The Brexit Party played a vital role at the European elections in terrorising the Conservatives into ousting Theresa May and renewing their commitment to honouring the referendum result. But, as The Full Brexit contributors predicted, this populist movement is unable to surmount its own contradictions (see Analysis #27 - The Brexit Party: Creature of the Void and Analysis #28 - The Brexit Party: Vital Stop-Gap, But No Solution).
A fragile and unbalanced alliance of Thatcherite and ex-communist forces, the Brexit Party has been unable to develop a meaningful policy platform. A commitment to democracy is welcome, of course; but citizens are apt to ask: democracy for what purpose? What sort of society are you promising to create? How do you propose to address, say, the social and economic grievances of the deindustrialised Welsh valleys, or the North of England? Here, beyond a commitment to higher infrastructure spending, the Brexit Party must be silent, for any attempt to flesh out a vision would tear its contradictory elements apart. Internal discussions on higher education, for example, produced so little consensus that the only agreed position is to lower interest rates on student fees.
This is not an accidental outcome, nor a quirk of Farage’s leadership. It is inherent to populist mobilisation itself, which always involves trying to stitch together fundamentally opposed interests through claiming a fictitious unity of “the people” against “the elite”. As the experience of movements like Italy’s Five Star or Greece’s Syriza shows, if these groups ever get into government, they effectively outsource policymaking to technocrats, because they have no clear idea of what they hope to achieve. Similarly, right-wing populists like Trump and Salvini have been far less radical and transformative in government than their campaign rhetoric suggested, with both forced to rely on technocrats and state functionaries to run their governments, lacking – particularly in Trump’s case – their own programmatic vision, and their own partisans capable of taking over state power. Populism is a symptom of the crisis in representative politics, not a way of resolving it.
In policy terms, the Labour Party offers something of a mirror image of the Brexit Party. Of all the national parties, it has the most sweeping vision for economic transformation, encompassing nationalisation of utilities and the railway network. To be sure, the Labour Party’s vision of “warm homes” as part of its much-vaunted “green new deal” is still modest by the standards of historic social democracy. The prospect of stuffing more thermal insulation (probably manufactured in China) into the attics of Britain’s decrepit housing stock fades by comparison to, say, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Housing Act of 1934.
Nonetheless, the major factor weighing down the Labour Party’s comparative political ambition is its inability to translate the democratic mandate embodied in the Brexit vote into national political renewal, as it seeks instead to reverse Brexit through another referendum after negotiating a new deal with Brussels. At best, this means deferring the enactment of the Brexit referendum, prolonging the democratic purgatory we have been in since 2016. At worst, it will result in the squelching of a democratic revolt that Labour’s radicals ought instead to have harnessed to their transformative agenda. Instead, the leadership has caved to the Europhilic, professional middle-class party membership, which chafes against the democratic demands of Labour’s working-class voters. Labour’s spending splurge is intended to compensate for the negation of Brexit.
Ironically, however, Labour’s economic vision is subject to precisely the same opportunistic scare-mongering from employers and the business press that Labour Party supporters themselves happily indulge when attacking Brexit, as in the dystopian scenarios of collapsing business investment, depression and currency free-fall if we leave the EU without a deal. Moreover, as long as we remain within the EU, the wealthy elites whom Labour plans to tax in order to finance its spending will be able to funnel their capital offshore, thanks to the EU’s free movement of capital. Investors will also be able to snarl up Labour’s plans for nationalising utilities and transportation in the European Court of Justice, notorious for its persistent rulings in favour of capital at the expense of labour (see Analysis #13 - The Chimera of Workers’ Rights in the EU). When talking up their proposed national investment bank, Labour politicians make no mention of EU constraints on state aid to industry, which was one of Jeremy Corbyn’s major criticisms of Theresa May’s original Withdrawal Agreement, which entrenched these restrictions (see The Withdrawal Agreement’s Crimes Against Democracy: Democratic Resurgence Requires “No Deal”).
Another referendum on Brexit clearly calls into question and delegitimises the outcome of the first referendum. That the Labour Party has capitulated to the demand for one suggests that, for all its promises of economic transformation, it has no real willingness really to challenge vested interests and entrenched conservatism through a democratic mobilisation of ordinary citizens.
Insofar as we can really call this so-far-lacklustre campaign a “Brexit election” at all, then, it is really a symptom of our continued political malaise. Our political parties still fail to define Britain’s post-EU future in substantive terms. And so long as Brexit remains an empty vision, it will continue to be defined by its opponents and their garish dystopias, while the country as a whole will remain trapped in fear of the future and of the possibility of change.
About the Authors
Dr Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. They are among the co-founders of The Full Brexit.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.