After Brexit, Britain suddenly becomes European

Boris out. Gove up; Gove down. May saves the day; no, she’s too authoritarian. Leadsom comes from behind; no, she’s too inexperienced. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you weren’t following the minute-by-minute twists of British politics over the past few days. Having lost its leader and the country’s prime minister — David Cameron resigned on June 24, after losing the referendum to keep Britain in the European Union — the ruling Conservative Party must choose a new one. As I watched this baroque process unfold in London, I realized that I just couldn’t write about the backstabbing, the personal betrayals, the resentments and jealousies, some of which date back 30 years to student political debates at the Oxford Union.

It has become clear that something far more important is happening: By voting itself out of the E.U., the United Kingdom has suddenly, unexpectedly become European. Overnight, the old British political divide, between a soft left, business-friendly Labour Party and a center-right, economically liberal Conservative Party, has disappeared. The old arguments, over taxes and spending (Labour wanted higher, Tories wanted lower) and the size of the state (Tories wanted smaller, Labour wanted bigger), are out the window. The old ideologies are gone. Even the old people are gone.

Instead, the British are split along the same lines as everyone else. Early last year, I wrote that the most important political division in Europe is not between the old left and the old right, but between what I would call established, integrationist politics on the one hand and isolationist or protectionist nationalist politics on the other. This is true in Greece, in Poland, in France, in the Netherlands.

Now it is true in Britain, too, but the split is an uneven one, jagged and still raw. Last month’s referendum exposed the existence of at least two coherent British political constituencies that now have no representation in Parliament. The first is roughly defined by the English nativist U.K. Independence Party — a movement that would, in any other country, go under the moniker “far right” — and it contains both former Labour voters and former Conservatives. UKIP had 3.8 million voters at the last election, but thanks to a voting system that favors major parties, there is only one UKIP MP. Nobody has ever really demanded that this group produce actual policies or take responsibility for carrying them out, but it’s fair to guess that it wants less trade, higher walls, stronger borders, more state planning, a more English England and some distance from allies of all kinds.

Bitterly opposed to these ideas, a second large political grouping — pro-European, integrationist, in favor of trade and foreign alliances, committed to the union of England and Scotland and a broad definition of “Britishness” — also lacks political representation. Suddenly, it looks as though these centrists, the 48 percent of the country who voted “Remain,” have no political voice.

Neither leader of either major political party represents this group. The dynamic inside the Tory party is pushing its leaders toward radicalization: Already, the leadership contenders are arguing about who will take the country out of Europe faster. They are bitterly divided — right now, I can’t even tell you whether the next leader will turn out to be a protectionist or a global trader — and it’s hard to imagine how they can appeal to the pro-European center.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is stuck in a destructive downward spiral. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, comes from the Marxist, anti-American and anti-capitalist far left; he became party leader after thousands of people joined the Labour Party explicitly to vote for him. Since taking charge of one of Britain’s two great, historic, mass political parties, he has behaved as though he were running a secret revolutionary cell. He doesn’t speak to some of his deputies; he hardly campaigned during the referendum; he refused, even, to say whether he had voted for Britain to stay in Europe at all.

Hence the weird sense of political disorientation that has gripped London. Hence the flurry of phone calls and email chains, the meetings to plan responses; hence the discussions of new parties and new alliances, the possible revival of the Liberal Democrats, the small centrist party wiped out at the last election. Hence the un-British vertigo and the fear that something even nastier will emerge. An angry British friend sent me a Gramsci quote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

A few months ago, British politics felt too dull, too Anglo-Saxon, too predictable to have ever been relevant to a continental philosopher. Now, just as Britain prepares to move away from Europe, the country has suddenly become not only continental but also emotional. Or maybe it has been moving that way for a long time, but we just couldn’t see it.

Scroll to Top