Brexit 'civil war' spells end of Left-Right divide

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder

Attitudes to Brexit will be the new divide

 

Predicting shifts in the volatile politics of Europe is fraught with danger, but here’s a cautious forecast on where the UK is headed. The Left-Right party divide that has long shaped British debate and determined loyalties will be replaced by pro- and anti-Europe political parties.

I base this prediction not so much on developments in the UK as within continental Europe. Brexit is shaking the European Union out of its complacency, and if European integration regains its momentum the politics of offshore Britain must inevitably adapt to that.

How this shift would play out, and at what speed, is anyone’s guess. What seems increasingly clear, though, is that Brexit is not cut-and-dried. Slowly but surely, the UK’s changing relationship with Europe is re-fashioning the political parties that have held sway throughout the post-Second World War years – and by some yardsticks, since the 19th century.

“Brexit means Brexit” said Theresa May on becoming Prime Minister last summer in the aftermath of the referendum in which just over 50% of British voters opted to leave the EU. Since then, her position has hardened.

She is campaigning for what appears to be a ‘hard Brexit’ in the run-up to the snap 8 June general election that is expected to give her Conservative Party a landslide victory.

The LibDems lack charisma and have alienated many longstanding supporters by their perceived betrayal of policy pledges

The conventional wisdom is that the Conservatives’ small majority in the House of Commons will be swelled due to two factors: pro-Brexit sentiment, and because the main opposition Labour Party is flailing around with old-style socialist policies that are no longer attractive to middle-of-the-road voters.

But beneath the surface something much more complicated may be going on. The Conservatives are garnering support in the traditionally Labour strongholds that voted in favour of Brexit.

At the same time, the refusal of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to take an anti-Brexit stance before the referendum, or to oppose the government’s handling of the negotiating process, is bound to cost him votes amongst left-wingers who fear the economic consequences of quitting the EU.

If British politics are to divide over Europe rather than economic growth versus social justice, Theresa May will have contributed to this. Her election manifesto seeks to outflank Labour by promising an array of new state benefits.

The distinction is disappearing between Labour and her own Tories, whom she once famously said were thought of as ‘the nasty party’ for its unforgiving attitudes to the less-privileged.

Turning the bitter divisions between Britain’s EU ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ into a new political architecture won’t happen overnight.

If the British elections were decided by some form of proportional representation, then it would be much easier for voters to transfer their support to a new party.

If British politics are to divide over Europe rather than economic growth versus social justice, Theresa May will have contributed to this

As it is, the first-past-the-post system favours incumbent parties, something the UK Independence Party has found to its cost: Despite having changed the face of British politics, it still has no MPs.

The centrist Liberal Democrats are the obvious core of a Europe Party. Profoundly opposed to Brexit, they are demanding a second referendum on EU membership once the details of the deal are known.

But the LibDems lack charisma and have alienated many longstanding supporters by their perceived betrayal of policy pledges when in a coalition government with the Tories, notably on education.

Tony Blair, whose pro-EU New Labour government ruled for a decade, is attempting to raise the standard of protest against Brexit, but he remains fatally wounded by his decision to join the United States in invading Iraq in 2003.

That doesn’t mean people won’t rally to the cause if led by others, especially once the impact of Brexit on British living standards begins to be felt.

‘Europe’ has long divided Britain’s politicians, but now it’s set to oppose, and perhaps invigorate, its political parties.

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