To the outsider, watching Prime Minister May struggle to make constructive proposals and secure agreement on its exit from the EU, it must seem as though the UK has suddenly gone mad. This is certainly what my neighbours here in South-West France think! That would however misunderstand the complexities that the UK – and all the other 27 members of the EU – are faced with. The current difficulties the UK faces in trying to extricate itself from the EU are due to a perfect storm of mutually contradictory political forces. One might almost call it deadlock politics.
The impact of the 2016 Referendum and the 2017 General Election
Others in the EU have been greatly frustrated by the lack of political vision coming from the UK side. “What do you want?” they keep asking. The answer must surely be that such is the current political conflict in the UK that it is unable to clearly articulate policy. The normal systems and processes are blocked.
Fundamentally PM Cameron in his wisdom (or the lack of it) decided in 2016 to short-cut the usual policy-making process and take the question that was so fatally dividing his party to the country in a referendum, seeking to resolve a complex political issue of the nature of the UK’s membership of the EU with a simple “Leave/Remain” question. The country nearly evenly divided in its response, with a narrow lead for Leave, but without any clarity on quite what form Leave would take. As so often in politics, nothing is ever so simple, which, as is argued in this blog, is why we have representative government (ie. decisions by an elected few) as opposed to direct democracy (referendums as in Switzerland or ancient Athens). Thus the elected government is left with trying to develop a complex solution to a complex problem, whilst beset by conflicting interpretations of what “Leave” means. For example does “Leave” mean a complete divorce or for example retain membership of the single market as does Norway?
To confuse matters further, May tried to strengthen her position vis a vis her opponents with a snap election in June 2017 and lost her majority. It would seem that, among other things, many Remain voters in Southern England deserted the Tories, and the vote in some ways replicated the Referendum split, the country being nearly evenly divided. May was forced to govern with the support of the Northern Irish Protestant DUP in a “confidence and supply” agreement, thus pulling the Celtic nationalities issue centre stage in British politics.
Once again, Britain is forced to also deal again with the old Irish Question at the same as attempt to leave the EU, in the present form of whether there is a “hard” border between south and north and the fate of the Good Friday Agreement (1998) that has brought peace to the island. Meanwhile in the wings, other “nations” demand similar treatment to what the Irish are given, such as staying in the single market. After all both Scotland and N. Ireland voted Remain. The whole question of the integrity of the UK is thus at stake.
Parliamentary power politics cuts across executive decision-making
In the UK system, when a government lacks a majority it might form a coalition, as in 2010-15, or govern as a minority often with a voting agreement with a minor party, in this case the DUP. Thus, to the ongoing conflict within the Conservative Party about the EU, between Remainers and Leavers, and between soft and hard Brexit, is added the pressures from within Parliament. When a government lacks a majority it very often has to bend to other forces within Parliament. Thus as it attempts to pass legislation to enact Leave, the Withdrawal Bill, it is forced to accept amendments. One has been to prevent it making secondary legislation (often called “Statutory Instruments”) without Parliamentary approval in order to carry out the details of separation. Another is currently an attempt to stop the government from making a “no deal” exit, with potentially devastating consequences for the economy, without Parliament’s approval.
Without a governing majority, executive effectiveness is severely curtailed. This is usually resolved by another election, as happened in 1974, but the Tories are so afraid of a left-wing Corbyn-led Labour victory, and of a Remain outcome, that they are currently hanging on to power.
The politics of deadlock
After all, there is a Remain majority in Parliament, although many MP’s currently support Brexit from a desire to “respect the Referendum” result. Very often, when asked, MP’s say that it would be very harmful to the UK’s democracy to go against the result. This is despite other EU countries having held further referendums when the first failed to deliver the desired result, and there being no established precedent as to the role of referendums in the UK constitution. In the UK, this must be seen in the context of widespread antagonism towards politics and politicians, and the Referendum result is partly seen as a voter revolt against the “political class”.
Yet what we have at present is deadlock. A whole range of forces are acting in mutually cancelling directions. We have an expression, that it feels like “pulling teeth”.
This writer would argue that the underlying political dilemma is that a complex policy decision is being made on the basis of a vote in answer to an over-simple question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” – and all else is almost paralysed in consequence.
The vote was a very narrow majority, 51.9% to 48.1%. Thus a very large minority is being disenfranchised in consequence, although the nature of the UK’s representative government system (elected MP’s; government derived from a majority of them), has traditionally been to reflect a wide range of opinions within its activities. A hugely important decision is being made based on a very slender margin of consent, with the traditional political outlets being neutered. This could have very damaging consequences for the political health of the UK, and it is asking a lot of the discipline of our political culture.
Moreover a whole range of political forces have been unleashed that demand attention in the settlement that is being attempted, and the interaction of these forces is making a successful outcome very difficult to achieve. For example we have, as stated above, the various minority “nations” demanding to be accommodated. Both N. Ireland (55.78%) and Scotland (62%) voted to Remain. So too did London, which has a vital national asset in the City of London and is perhaps the most cosmopolitan part of the UK. There was a pronounced regional bias to the vote, with the former industrial regions of the North, the West Midlands and South Wales voting heavily to Leave. So too was there an educational bias, with the university-educated being Remain and those educated to secondary level only being Leave. Rural and small-town diverged from large metropolitan areas. Many have remarked on the tribal nature of the vote, and polling since, and how two very distinct and very polarised groupings have emerged, both dogmatically attached to their position. Those voting Leave seem to hold a very strong sense of grievance, the result it is argued of decades of relative economic decline and marginalisation. Forces of the Far Right have been capitalising on this, and an uncomfortable rise in racism, xenophobia and homophobia has been observed. The threads that hold the UK’s society together are potentially being torn apart.
The 2017 general election probably reinforced this new divide in British politics, those more inward-looking and hostile to other countries and peoples pitched against socially liberal, more ethnically diverse, higher educated and more outward-looking.
This is perhaps the long-anticipated realignment in politics after the age of class-based politics, and many don’t find it comfortable!
Where there is an evenly balanced set of forces, both with radically different world-views, it is very difficult for policy to be formulated that can appeal beyond one’s own tribe. Compromise gets harder.
Extreme policy options
Thus we are presented with extreme policy options. The “Brexiters”, mainly but not exclusively on the right, favour a “hard” Brexit, leaving the EU without an agreement, since they consider the EU to be asking too much, and proposing to revert to WTO rules – with a consequent massive hit to the economy or being liberated to make lucrative Free Trade deals round the world depending on your point of view. This position is neo-liberal, promising a “bonfire of regulations”, and the completion of the Thatcherite revolution moving from a welfare-led state to a small-state solution. The moderate, “soft” majority in Parliament wish to remain in the Single Market and customs union and are supported by business. However the neo-Marxist Labour leadership want a radical reshaping of the state and economy in a socialist direction.
The “soft” and “hard” Brexit policy options are reflected in the Cabinet, where May struggles to achieve some sort of momentary consensus in order to make some small proposition to the EU negotiators.
All the time, the EU keeps firm to its position, by far the stronger partner in the talks and in a very good position to dictate terms.
Thus while the “hard” right try to push May to be tough with the EU, the threat to the economy is seen as so great that the “soft” party are able to resist. However neither side currently has the advantage.
Thus we have a near-stalemate situation.