Britain still has no clue what to do about Brexit – Washington Post
It’s not every year that a British prime minister gambles their future on a vote they didn’t even have to hold, and loses. But after David Cameron did so in 2016 with the Brexit referendum and now Theresa May has in 2017 with an early election, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking so.
This latest electoral blunder — May’s Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority despite enjoying as much as a 20-point lead a few weeks ago — was in a lot of ways a repeat of the previous one. Both were about a new nationalism upending old political realities. The difference, though, is that Cameron thought he could tame this nationalism by giving it a day at the polls, while May thought that giving it a day at the polls would let her tame her political opponents. Neither was correct.
Instead, Britain’s parties are still sorting and re-sorting themselves around two politically contradictory questions: What it does it mean to be British, and how big should the government be?
Now, to understand what’s going on, you have to go back to the last time British politics mostly made sense. That was a long-ago era known as 2015. At that point, the Conservatives were solely the party of small government, Labour was solely the party of big government, the Liberal Democrats were largely irrelevant, and various regional parties were playing spoiler roles. So far, so normal. But beneath the surface, the two main parties were having a harder time keeping what used to be their bases. Labour was in particularly bad shape since it was losing votes to Scottish nationalists who wanted independence from London and to British nationalists who wanted independence from Brussels. But it wasn’t as if the Tories were immune: They were also bleeding support to the British nationalists in the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), who wanted to pull the country out of the European Union so that it could write its own much more restrictive immigration rules.
Since then, British politics has, at least from a Conservative point of view, taken on the tint of a Shakespearean tragedy. It began when Cameron tried to shore up the Tories’ right wing by giving them the vote they wanted over the E.U. The idea being, of course, that this would give them the cathartic release they needed to stop defecting to UKIP, especially when they saw the results of the referendum. And, in what was a catastrophic success, this was indeed the case — just not for the reason Cameron thought. Instead of Brexit losing by so much that UKIP’s cause looked hopeless, Brexit’s narrow victory meant that UKIP wasn’t needed anymore. And now neither was Cameron.
But this wasn’t exactly the end of the world for the Tories. The opposite, actually. It seemed like the beginning of one where they might be able to make their majority even less assailable —
if, that is, they were willing to make a few concessions. Namely, going from being the party of small government and staying in the E.U. to being the party of not-quite-as-small government and leaving it. That, in theory, was the ideological sweet spot where they could keep their free-market base happy at the same time that they reached out to UKIP voters, who, given that many of them were former Labour supporters, weren’t exactly laissez-faire friendly. It was precisely this type of nationalist conservatism — or was it conservative nationalism? — that May was going for when, in her first speech as prime minister, she declared that it was “time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right” and remember that “while government does not have all the answers, government can and should be a force for good.”
Margaret Thatcher this was not.
It didn’t hurt that there was plenty of room to move to the middle when Labour was so busy moving left. Its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, sounded like he’d gone into cryogenic sleep in 1979 and just woken up. Beyond a fairly standard, if still ambitious, Labour platform — protecting pensions, putting more money into health care, and making college free — he also wanted to nationalize the country’s mail, railways and energy markets. In other words, make Britain socialist again. It was so hard to imagine that someone who thought Hugo Chávez had “made a massive contribution to Venezuela and a very wide world” stood a real chance of winning a general election that Labour MPs tried to force him out last year. Which is why it seemed like May just had to steal a few Labour positions, such as capping people’s energy bills, to cruise to the kind of Conservative supermajority that she said would let her take a tougher line in Brexit talks.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this electoral triumph. There was a campaign. Labour took an understated approach to Brexit that helped them, while the Tories underestimated how much their new tack would hurt them with the upper middle class. What do we mean by this? Well, Labour wasn’t against Brexit, but it also wasn’t for it the same way the Tories were. This lukewarm stance was enough for them to win back some of the UKIPers they’d lost the past few years at the same time that it wasn’t too much to keep them from winning over some of the higher-income Tories who were looking for a party that wasn’t so anti-E.U. — or would take their homes if they got Alzheimer’s. Conservatives, you see, had briefly proposed that, for anyone who required in-home care, their families be forced to sell their homes after they passed away to cover the costs of it all. It didn’t take long for this to get labeled the “dementia tax,” and not much longer after that for the Tories to abandon it. But the damage had been done.
The result was a politics divided along urban and rural lines as much as liberal and conservative ones. That’s because there are a lot of city-dwelling Conservatives who don’t want to leave the E.U. and would rather leave their party for being so gung-ho about it. And also a lot of people in the countryside who used to lean toward Labour but have now left for whoever is the most against the immigrants they blame for taking their jobs and undercutting their wages. May’s mistake was thinking that she could bring in one without pushing away the other.
But that’s left both parties in a pretty precarious position. Take Labour. Its voters are a mix of students, low-income Leavers and high-income Remainers. Some of them are opposed to Brexit; others probably are opposed to the kind of tax hikes Corbyn wants. For now, they can paper over these differences, but that’s only because they’re hypothetical ones. They wouldn’t be able to keep that up for very long, though, if they actually won power — just look at the Conservatives. Once their voters realized that May really could get the “hard Brexit” she wanted, where they would not only leave the E.U. but also its single market and customs unions, a lot of upscale constituencies that hadn’t voted for Labour in, well, ever, did so. It’s a tough balancing act: not supporting one party so that it can’t do things you don’t like, but not not supporting it so much that the other party could either.
In short, neither party has figured out how to fit this new nationalism into their old platforms. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. Why not? Well, this nationalism is in part a response to the financial crisis. There just isn’t as much money to go around as people thought there’d be, so they want to keep what there is for people who look, sound and worship like they do. But the rest of it is that globalization means that people feel like their destinies are not their own. That their jobs, their communities, their very way of life depend on the decisions that unseen corporate executives and government bureaucrats make thousands of miles away. They want to, as the Brexiteers put it, “take back control.”
It’s made British politics a little less than coherent. Small-government conservatives are now trying to share a party with big-government nationalists, while big-government liberals are trying to keep their own big-government nationalists in the fold at the same time that they reach out to small-government cosmopolitans. And in the meantime, the country has two years to pull off what might be the most complicated divorce in history with the Brexit negotiations.
Don’t be surprised, then, if another British prime minister gambles their future on another vote they don’t have to hold. It almost makes more sense than anything else.