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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 42 New Delhi October 5, 2019

Hubris and Nemesis: Brexit and the Breakdown of British Politics

Saturday 5 October 2019


by Purusottam Bhattacharya

The Context

Britain finds itself in the midst of the biggest crisis—political, constitutional, economic, diplomatic and, above all, its identity in the contemporary world—since the end of the Second World War in 1945. The decision to quit the European Union in a national referendum held in June 2016 by a slender majority has opened a veritable Pandora’s Box which has laid bare the hubris and nemesis in Britain’s relationship with Europe dating back to the end of the Second World War in all its stark manifestations. The titanic wrangling of three-and-a-half years since the referendum, both within Britain and with its partners in the European Union, regarding how the parting of the ways is to be brought about has resulted in an absolute gridlock which, at the time of writing, shows little glimmer of hope that it can at all be resolved as amicably as possible under the circumstances anytime soon.

How and why such a situation has come to pass bears a very long and complicated history which has been narrated many times over, including by this writer himself, in the vast literature on post-war Britain’s relationship with Europe. Ever since it finally joined the then European Community in 1973 after long years of dithering—made more complicated by its own domestic compulsions as well as the initial French opposition to its entry—Britain has always been a reluctant ‘European’. Having never subscribed to the fundamental philosophy of the European Unity movement pioneered by the French statesmen, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, in the late 1940s, its initial decision to stay away from such a ‘supranational’ venture with thinly disguised condescension about its nature, London’s hands were forced in the 1950s and 1960s by forces beyond its control which we need not go into here. (For a detailed account of these developments see Purusottam Bhattacharya: 1994.)

So the UK’s entry into the EC in 1973 can be fairly described as one forced by national compulsions and not a voluntary one driven by its conversion to ‘Europeanism’. The divisive nature of the issue domestically was never resolved as both major parties—Conservative and Labour—played chameleon-like roles on Europe during their tenures in office depending on what suited their parties’ interests more than national ones. Such twisted positions by the two major parties which have mostly governed Britain since the war earned the UK the sobriquet of an ‘awkward’ partner within the EU as wrangling between the UK and the EU partners continued under various British Prime Ministers—Conservative and Labour— on issues such as the Common Agricultural Policy, an elaborate farm support project that never benefited the UK which has a small agricultural sector, the high British contributions to the EU budget and, most fundamentally, on the issues of the Schengen single border and European single currency project—the Euro. The UK remained outside the two crucial EU projects which ensure a borderless Europe of 22 EU member-states and a 19-member ‘Eurozone’ where the common currency prevails. Besides the UK, as already indicated, never subscribed to the European dream of an ‘ever closer union’ which many in Britain feared would turn the EU into a super-state, consigning British sovereignty and identity (primarily the two principal piers of the present Brexit crisis) to oblivion. The lingering fear—borne out of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992—about where the EU was headed and the geopolitical reorganisation of the UK from imperial state to a EU member- state in the latter half of the twentieth century created and ignited crises of collective identity within British political institutions and civil society that found expression in the rise of Euroscepticism. (C. Gifford: 2008)

Genesis of the Breakdown of British Politics

In order to situate the current imbroglio on Brexit in a proper perspective it is necessary to trace the genesis of not only Britain’s convoluted attitude to Europe and how British politics shaped it over the years but also to focus on the dramatic transformation of the country’s politics and the extraordinary rise of the populist Right which has, to a very substantial extent, driven the Brexit bandwagon. Post-war British politics—and it can be traced back to the end of the First World War in 1918—has been marked by a clear ideological divide between the Conservative Party that advocated free market economics and conservative values, political and social, which broadly appealed to the middle and the better-off classes of British society, and the Labour Party that has been a votary of a brand of socialism of the non-Marxist variety which adopted, since it came to power in 1945, a sweeping programme of nationalisation of key industries and services to lay the foundation of the first British welfare state. When the Tories came back to power in 1951 they did not reverse this trend except minor tinkering here and there as the basic philosophy of the welfare state had caught on the imagination and support of the people. In spite of a certain degree of convergence between the two governing parties on the basic elements of the welfare state, the fundamental ideological divide between the Conservatives and Labour persisted till the 1990s which gave the voters of Britain a clear choice during the elections that led political analysts to brand the UK to be a ‘two-party system’.

However, this limited consensus politics began to change in the 1990s when the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, embarked upon a shift towards the political Centre-ground. Highly symbolic steps such as the abandonment of further nationalisation of industry and the removal of references to socialism in Labour manifestoes in 1995 signalled a desire to leave class politics behind. (For a detailed analysis of the emergence of the Labour Party with a new identity and programme see Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2000: 243-260.) With Labour’s shift towards the ideological Centre where the Conservative Party had its traditional moorings (before the emergence of its hard Right in the new century, especially on the issue of Europe) the gap between the political programmes of the two major parties shrank. The outcome for British politics was the adoption of a socially liberal agenda by both the main parties which was not looked upon favourably by some sections of the electorate. On at least three critical issues—their embrace of market-based economic policies, broad support for European integration (on which the two parties had taken many con-voluted positions earlier) and consensus on social and economic liberalism made their ideological positions effectively indistinguishable leaving the traditional Tory and Labour voters highly bewildered and confused regarding their choice of parties at the time of elections. The main victim was what used to be a defining feature of electoral politics—the advocacy of clear, competing political ideologies. ‘Political competition came to be about little more than branding and competence.’ While in the 1980s over 80 per cent of voters thought there was a great deal of difference between the two major parties, since 1997 the figure came down to only 25 per cent. (Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon: 2017: 27-28)

From the 1990s and the early part of the present century Britain’s party system came to be dominated by two solidly Centrist and liberal parties whatever their past ideological moorings might have been. Yet another noticeable change was that as politics became more technical, key public policy responsibilities came to be handed over to non-political bodies. A significant body of opinion emerged, primarily in technocratic and academic circles, that such ‘delegation’ by politicians provided a more effective means of making long-term decisions than policy-making by elected politicians. Some technocrats believed that democracy is ‘simply incompatible with the realities of a complex post- Industrial society’. (Frank Fischer cited in Evans and Anand: 2017: 31.)

As these trends exacerbated the gaps between politics, politicians and the electorate ever more, the process was further expedited by constraints imposed by globalisation with its own often uncontrollable dynamics which was compounded by the European Union and its all-pervasive laws that restrict what member- states are able to do as the EU laws take precedence over national laws. There are other ways in which European integration can impact on national democracy. (For details see Evans and Anand: 2017: 32.) To sum up, ‘the combination of broad convergence between the major parties, the trend towards delegation of key functions to non-elected bodies, and the constraints imposed by globalisation and the EU fostered the impression that political leaders could achieve less and less’. (Evans and Anand: 2017: 35)

As such an impression became widespread in British society, participation in the electoral process declined alarmingly as people increasingly lost faith in politics and politicians. From the 1950s till the 1980s voter turnout in national elections used to vary between 90 and 80 per cent. However, since the turn of the century, prior to the EU referendum, the average has been around 63 per cent. As politics became more professional and oriented towards the better-educated classes, the working class, the poor and the less highly educated, on both the Left and Right, increasingly felt that none of the mainstream parties represented them, and accordingly chose not to vote at all or look for alternative political forces who would safeguard their interests better.

Though the economic recession, which started in 2008 hit the ‘eurozone’ more severely, Britain could not however remain unscathed altogether in spite of being outside the ‘eurozone’. Some of it was self-inflicted as the Conservative-Liberal coalition government that took office in 2010 with David Cameron as the Prime Minister introduced severe austerity measures which hit the poor—as such programmes always do— hard. An already class-divided society was further prized apart as a result of the austerity programme with the better-off classes remaining mostly either unaffected or in fact increasing their wealth further as, notwithstanding the downside of globalisation and the EU membership, these people were able to extract the benefits of this twin phenomenon much more effectively than their less educated and poorer counterparts in society. Alongside the unequal impact of austerity policies (job losses) in spite of the government’s proclaimed intentions, the programme’s actual working further under-mined the idea that austerity was being implemented fairly. (Evans and Anand: 2017: 35-39)

The outcome of all this dissatisfaction with politics, politicians and the dynamics of an unfair system was the emergence of the British version of the populist revolt which had reared its head in other parts of the European Union if not the world. In the UK the anger and resentment of ordinary people fuelled the birth and growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led by a maverick politician, named Nigel Farage. The UKIP’s voters are steadfastly negative about the political class who believe that politicians are largely a self-serving lot interested only in bettering them-selves at the expense of ordinary folks. But the spectrum of the populist revolt in Britain, as also elsewhere in Europe, was not confined to only the financial crisis, inequality and tone-deaf politicians. The concern about social values such as respect for traditional norms, attitudes towards crime and punishment, censorship and authority was also very much a part of the phenomenon. The uniqueness about social conservatism is that it cannot simply be defined by the traditional Left-Right divide but has a wide social base including those in low-skill jobs or no jobs at all as well as many occupations and social classes such as the self-employed, small business owners and a substantial portion of managers who felt unrepresented by the mainstream socially liberal parties. (Evans and Anand: 2017: 39-40)

The UKIP made good use of the growing dissatisfaction with politics, frustration born out of the financial crisis and the growing disconnect between the major parties and many voters on the issue of social values. To top it all, the UKIP added two other issues that had caught the imagination of the electorate—the alleged unsustainability of the high levels of immigration into the United Kingdom which the coalition government of David Cameron had promised to drastically reduce in their election manifesto but which remained unfulfilled. The longstanding unpopularity of the European Union in Britain was yet another handy tool for the UKIP to
hit the establishment with. The increasing popularity of the UKIP, especially on the
issue of immigration, was reflected in the
local elections of 2013 when they raised their
vote-share to almost 25 per cent—an increase of almost 10 per cent from four years

Respectable Political Surveys preceding the EU

The Referendum of June 2016 highlighted the steadily falling public trust in politics, politicians and the mainstream political parties. As already mentioned, this was reflected in the dramatic fall in the voting percentages and, according to the experts, this was no ‘temporary blip’, suggesting ‘more severe form of disengage-ment than anything previously seen...’. Though the two major parties tried their best to maintain a veneer of ideological uniqueness, the perception among many was that the two had become indistinguishable. An increasingly disenchanted electorate, confronted with a limited set of political choices, was now all set for a rebellion which was the EU Referendum verdict of June 2016. (Evans and Anand: 2017: 41-45)

A detailed analysis of the EU Referendum and its subsequent fall-out is not within the purview of this article. However, a few extrapolations can certainly be drawn from the survey presented above to highlight the breakdown of British politics as it took shape since the end of the War. Many observers believe that Brexit was driven largely by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of important segments of the British political establishment, particularly the UKIP. The UK had witnessed large inflows of EU nationals over the 10-year period preceding the Referendum. Most of these EU nationals migrated from their home countries in Eastern and Central Europe after the EU enlargement of 2004. The UK could restrict migration from the other parts of the world as per its own choice; but it could not do so in regard to EU nationals as Union rule of free movement of EU citizens within the Union prevents this. For the UKIP and other hard core supporters of Britain leaving the EU, especially in the Conservative Party (the so-called Brexteers) the only way to stop this migration from EU member-states was for the UK to leave the Union. (Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2018; 64)

In many ways the Referendum bears out the analysis of the social and political divide presented above that had taken hold of the country. Without going into details there were large variations in terms of regions and social classes within the Referendum verdict of 52 per cent-48 per cent in favour of leaving the EU. There was only a majority in favour of leaving in England and Wales while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The better educated and socially liberal voters voted to remain while the populist parties like the UKIP forged connections with less educated white working class voters, who were economically left behind and remained socially conservative and who supported leaving. The ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ covered the entire spectrum of the erstwhile Conser-vative and Labour voters thus confirming the breakdown of the political consensus that had been the governing feature of British politics since the War.

Looking Ahead

The history of British politics since the end of the Referendum in June 2016 has been nothing short of the macabre. It is not our intention to wade into that history which is now widely known. However, the most notable feature of the present scenario is the fact that the country has never been more deeply divided on a political (which has now taken an existential form) issue perhaps since the English civil war of the 17th century. These divisions have several layers such as the ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’, ‘hard Brexiteers’ and ‘soft Brexiteers’, the divisions between those who want to leave with a proper deal with the EU which, in their opinion, safeguards the national interests of the UK and those who want to leave at any-cost-deal or no-deal. And then there are those who want another Referendum to finally settle the issue. As things stand at the moment, there is a gridlock both within Britain between the current British Government, which wants to leave the EU on the latest deadline fixed by the Union, that is, October 31, 2019 even if there is no deal and those MPs of the House of Commons who have managed to pass a legislation forbidding any Brexit without a deal with the EU and, if necessary, an extension of the deadline to January 31, 2020; there is also little sign of any movement on fresh negotiations between the UK, led by the new Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the European Union to break new ground in contrast to the agreement negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, in November 2018 which the House of Commons rejected three times. The situation is so fluid that it would be churlish to make any prediction regarding how the stalemate can be broken or if so whether anytime soon. There is no doubt that the current scenario depicts a breakdown of British politics and an uncertain future in its relations with the European Union with which the UK has been intertwined since 1973. Only the next few weeks, months or even years may finally unravel the shape of things to come.


Purusottam Bhattacharya, (1994), Britain in the European Community: Implications for Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations. K.P. Bagchi and Company, New Delhi/Calcutta.

———, (2019), “Brexit: End of Britain’s European Odyssey” in Gulshan Sachdeva, ed., Challenges in Europe: Indian Perspectives, Palgrave/Macmillan, Singapore.

————,(2000), “The British Socialists: Quest for a New Identity” in B. Vivekanandan, ed., Building on Solidarity: Social Democracy and the New Millennium, Lancer’s Books, New Delhi.

Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon, (2017), Brexit and British Politics, Polity, Cambridge, UK.

C. Gifford, (2008), Euroscepticism in Britain: Identity and Economy in a Post-Imperial State, Farnham: Ashgate.

Timothy Garton Ash, “Final Opportunity”, The Telegraph, September 16, 2019.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya, a former Professor and Head of the Department of International Relations and erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is an Alumnus of the London School of Economics and Political Science and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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