The Washington Post Column

The nervous breakdown of British politics

  • LONDON

The vulgarity is missing, as is the celebrity glitz. There aren’t any candidates ranting about sex tapes and adultery; there are no hacked emails. But even without the drama that only a U.S. election can provide, the crisis is similar: On both ends of the spectrum, the two major British political parties are suddenly suffering from the same kinds of identity crises as their distant American cousins — and with the same kinds of costs for British democracy.

For most of the past three decades, ever since Margaret Thatcher dragged it out of the shires and onto the international stage, the British Conservative Party has touted itself as the outward-looking, globally trading cheerleader for a country that “punched above its weight.” The party pushed privatization, lower taxes, lower spending, a smaller state. Some of that language is still there: In her speech at the party’s annual conference this week, Prime Minister Theresa May told her colleagues that “the Britain we build after Brexit is going to be a Global Britain.”

But almost in the next breath, she implied that her country would be severing its links with the European Union in a manner that may well result in the construction of new tariff walls and will certainly require prolonged trade negotiations. Later, she threw a few bones to xenophobes, hinting she would like to kick out the tens of thousands of foreign-born doctors who keep the vast British health service functioning and updating the old “rootless cosmopolitan” slur for a new audience: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world,” she declared, “you are a citizen of nowhere.”

One of her cabinet colleagues then spoke of forcing companies to publish lists of “foreign workers” — presumably this would include the multinational companies and banks that have made London their headquarters; another described the E.U. nationals living in Britain as an important bargaining chip in future negotiations — apparently forgetting that Europe, if it wants to, might treat the 1.2 million Britons who live elsewhere in Europe as bargaining chips, too.

After occupying space formerly controlled by the UK Independence Party, Britain’s far right, the Tories moved to occupy the center-left, too. The idea of the small state has also been summarily scrapped, replaced by the prime minister’s declaration that “the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot.” While this is probably what most Britons think, it wasn’t what the Tory party thought until this week. Offering a softer version of the nationalist populism promised by the far right elsewhere in Europe, May declared that the Tories would become the party of the National Health Service and the party of public servants. She’s also scrapping balanced budgets until further notice and will borrow as much as she can as long as she needs to.

Anyone uncomfortable with any part of this message — anyone who doesn’t like the encrypted xenophobia, anyone still attached to the Thatcherite ideals of the small state or worried about government borrowing, or indeed any member of the 48 percent who voted to keep Britain part of the European Union — is out of luck. Because the opposition Labour Party, transformed under Tony Blair into a centrist party that won three straight general elections, has now been captured by an extremist fringe that is so far outside the center its leaders no longer seem interested in parliamentary politics at all. Consumed by infighting, tarred by accusations of anti-Semitism, the party and its strangely detached leader, Jeremy Corbyn, are more interested in fighting Western democracy than authoritarianism, more interested in toeing extremist lines than winning elections.

Ironically, the European referendum — a poll that was intended, in the words of its proponent, to make Britain’s Parliament sovereign again — has made British legislators almost irrelevant. May has declared she will not allow a parliamentary vote on the timing or nature of the British break with the European Union. She will not allow the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where voters opposed the changes, to have any voice in the process. From now on, the only important political debates in Britain will be the ones that take place within the ruling party. And if that ruling party suddenly seems unrecognizable — too bad.