The Great Realignment of Britain

Brexit is changing the basic grammar of the U.K.’s political system.

Protesters outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a Brexit vote in London on March 13, 2019
Protesters outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a Brexit vote in London on March 13 (Phil Noble / Reuters)

Britain spirals faster and faster into the Brexit crisis.

On Tuesday, the British Parliament again overwhelmingly rejected the U.K.-EU agreement for an orderly transition. That vote puts Britain on the path to crash out of the European Union on March 29.

Party leaders are scrambling to improvise some kind of cushion against the hard landing of a no-deal Brexit. Could Britain ask the EU for an extension of some weeks or months? Could Britain cancel its withdrawal from the EU altogether? Is there time for a second referendum, or new elections?

It’s chaos.

It’s chaos not only because so many British people intensely disagree with one another. It’s chaos because two key British people do not disagree nearly intensely enough. Prime Minister Theresa May wants the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. And so—probably even more so, and certainly over a much longer span of his political career—does the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has long viewed the European Union as a detestable neoliberal project that impedes hopes for socialism in the United Kingdom. Videos of Corbyn’s speeches from before he became leader of the Labour Party in 2015 record him denouncing the EU as a “European empire” and a “military Frankenstein,” and vowing to “defeat” the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and the international bankers they supposedly both serve. Corbyn absented himself from the 2016 Brexit referendum, even taking a holiday in the middle of it. He refused to share platforms with then–Prime Minister David Cameron to present a bipartisan case for EU membership.

All of Corbyn’s actions are consistent with the widely cited theory that what he wants is Britain’s exit from the EU, with the Conservatives taking the blame.

But while May openly avows her plan, Corbyn must conceal his. Brexit splits both of the U.K.’s two large parties, but Labour is, if possible, the more divided of the two.

As Tim Shipman observes in his history of the Brexit crisis, Labour is the party of both the most pro-EU and the most anti-EU voters in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the pro-Brexit Conservatives find themselves estranged from their natural base of more affluent, more educated voters. University graduates voted two to one to remain; high-school dropouts, two to one to leave. Those parts of Britain with the highest median incomes voted to remain; those parts with the lowest voted to leave. Brexit was a right-wing project carried out with left-wing votes.

In all democracies, there are issues that cut across party lines. The Iraq War was one such debate in the U.K. in the early 2000s; government surveillance policies were another, in the 2010s.

But those crosscutting issues—important as they were—did not change the basic grammar of the political system. Brexit potentially does.

Nigel Farage—then the leader of the supposedly right-wing UK Independence Party—campaigned for Brexit alongside George Galloway, who in 2002 described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest catastrophe of my life.” Galloway explained himself on the radio last week: “I want Britain post-Brexit to be what it was in the swinging ’60s … when we were the cultural capital of the world … when we had a steel industry, when we had a coal industry—when we were something!”

Farage’s UKIP campaigns to “bring back the great British pub” by relaxing rules on indoor smoking and raising drunk-driving limits. Farage himself likes to be photographed cigarette in one hand, pint of ale in the other. Galloway told a rally in 2005 that when summoned before the U.S. Senate to explain his business dealings with Saddam Hussein, he had defied American law by lighting a Cuban cigar in the Capitol. Farage’s economics are kinda-sorta libertarian; Galloway’s, vaguely communist. But they both hate anti-smoking rules, and they both yearn for the Britain of 50 years ago over the Britain of today.

Meanwhile, a former Conservative cabinet official who voted Remain told me with wonder, “My daughter pinned a European Union flag pin on her backpack.” The British are not a flag-waving people. Until extremely recently, you seldom saw flags on private spaces, only government buildings. Indeed, until 2012, national law severely restricted how, when, and which flags could be displayed at all. Since that law was relaxed, visitors to England—especially England outside central London—have noticed a proliferation of flags. But not the red-white-and-blue Union flag. The flag you most often see on private homes and cars is the red-and-white flag of England.

And equally suddenly, in and around London, European flags are—well, not everywhere, but visible. You see them in the windows of apartments in north London. You see them at rallies such as the huge mobilization for a second referendum in October 2018.

It’s unexpected. Until recently, even pro-EU British people seldom expressed enthusiasm for the shambling multinational agglomeration. Somebody had to set Europe-wide standards for natural-gas pipeline pressure, but it was not the kind of function that inspired idealism. While many might appreciate hassle-free travel to sunny Spain and scenic Italy, they would hardly get weepy about the legal regime that speeded their way. The EU was at best a convenience. Above all, it unites the young against the old. About 800,000 young British people qualify as voters every year. Britain’s under-25 population favored Remain over Leave, 71 to 29 percent. Among the over-65s who voted 64 to 36 percent Leave over Remain, 600,000 depart this world every year.

Even now, I doubt there is much authentic pro-EU feeling among EU Remainers. But there does seem to be a lot of anger against those pushing Britain out of the EU. This is not primarily an anger about economics, although the economics of quitting the European Single Market will be painful in the short term and probably not a lot more pleasant even in the longer term. It’s an anger against exactly the nostalgia politics that Galloway and Farage, in their different ways, express. Antipathy to nostalgia binds people who did not have much in common before: the banker with customers in Germany, the farmer who sells her lamb to restaurants in France, the college lecturer hired to teach students from Italy and Spain.

When pressed by criticism, Brexiteers invoke the heroics of 1940. But the war has been over for a very long time. Without dishonor to the glorious past, it’s no justification for an inglorious present.

And just as Farage and Galloway sound more and more alike, so too do the pro-EU people in business and politics, regardless of prior affiliation. I spoke on my most recent trip to people who held the highest posts in the Tony Blair and David Cameron governments. On the most urgent issues that face Britain now, those former fierce rivals sound more and more like natural allies.

Britain has chosen a track on which the relationship to Europe is emerging as the biggest and most enduring problem in politics. If Britain quits the EU, the relationship between Britain and Europe is bound to become more adversarial. Corbyn opposes the EU because he wants to protect and subsidize British industry against competition. The Tory Brexiteers envision a Britain that competes against Europe by undercutting its taxes and regulations. In either vision, the land boundary between the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland will seethe with smuggling and other forms of lawless trading.

Under those circumstances, the question of whether to stand up to Europe or work with Europe seems likely to emerge as the great culture clash in British politics, replacing the ancient politics of social class. British agriculture has voted Conservative since even before the Conservative Party adopted its name. By backing Brexit, the Conservatives have voted to shrivel British agriculture. How can that voting pattern continue? Middle-class professionals have leaned Labour since the 1980s. But the anti-Semitism, conspiracy mongering, and economic chauvinism of Corbyn’s Labour Party seem anathema to such professionals. They are even more stranded than the farmers.

An analogy from British history: Through most of the 19th century, the central issue in British politics was religion. Those who defended the privileged place of the Church of England rallied to the Conservatives; those who championed equal rights for Methodists, Baptists, Quakers—and even Catholics and Jews—gravitated to the Liberals.

But the rise of the Labour Party, and the advent of voting rights for all adult men in 1918, capsized that old politics. Against the new socialist challenge, formerly Liberal businesspeople sank old differences with Conservative landowners. The more radical Liberals made common cause with Labour and gradually were mostly absorbed into Labour. The Liberal Party continued to exist, and sometimes won real victories, but a new political grammar had replaced the old.

Centrist political projects usually fail because they can agree on what they oppose, but cannot agree on what they want. But the Brexit crisis provides content to a new British center: a single issue, openness to Europe, that can support a new cultural identity, rejection of nostalgia. Brexit may do to British politics of the 21st century what socialism did to the 20th: reshuffle the political cards better to fit society as it is. That process may have already begun. A new independent group in Parliament has recruited eight anti-Brexit Labour MPs and three anti-Brexit Conservatives. They have an issue: the call for a second referendum on Brexit. If they fail in that campaign, they will have a story and a cause—and, perhaps, a glimmer of a new and different politics of the future.