Donald Trump’s recent trip to Britain – happening against the backdrop of the sweltering heat of an unusually protracted summer heatwave – took place at a time when Britain’s political system is closer to breakdown than at any time in my memory.
The immediate crisis centres on a Brexit plan which British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled to her top ministers at a closed meeting at Chequers (the British Prime Minister’s official country residence) earlier this month.
It is fair to say this plan ( two years in the making and details still to be worked out), which proposes a relationship between Britain and the EU similar to those agreed by Ukraine and Moldova, satisfies no-one.
The hardline Brexiteers, who account for a significant minority of the elected members of Parliament (MPs) of May’s Conservative Party and an overwhelming majority of the Conservative Party’s membership and supporters in the country, are unhappy because they are not getting the clear break from the EU which they expected and which they believed they had been promised after Leave won the 2016 referendum.
Opponents of Brexit, made up of the overwhelming majority of opposition Labour Party MPs and its membership, as well as a small number of Conservative MPs, the bulk of the civil service, the business community and the labour unions basically don’t want Brexit to happen and want Britain to remain in the EU. They are unhappy because despite the continued connection to the EU Britain would still be leaving the EU.
As for the EU itself, it has remained uncharacteristically quiet since the plan was published, but its senior officials have made clear they will probably reject it because it crosses too many of its red lines.
How did Britain – two years after the question of Britain’s exit from the EU appeared to have been answered in the June 2016 referendum – end up with such a plan, and how does that connect to the broader political crisis which is underway in Britain today?
How It Came to Pass
In order to answer that question a good place to start is to look at the Brexit referendum itself, and how it came to pass, and how contrary to all expectations May became British Prime Minister immediately following it.
The key point to make about the Brexit referendum is that it would never have been called if there had been any genuine belief (or fear) within Britain’s political class that it would result in a vote for Britain to leave the EU.
David Cameron – the British Conservative Prime Minister who called the referendum – did so not to settle what he believed as a burning debate in Britain, but in order to outflank his critics within the Conservative Party and in the country, who were using his supposed loyalty to the EU as a political stick to beat him with.
Cameron himself – along with the rest of the British establishment – assumed however that the greater part of the British public was bored and indifferent to the question of Britain’s EU membership (Cameron once spoke of the need for the Conservative Party “to stop banging on about Europe”). Accordingly he assumed that once the referendum was called his critics would be quickly exposed as obsessive and marginal figures, out of touch with public opinion.
However, Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London had emerged as an important rival to Cameron for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and who after much agonising joined the Leave Europe campaign because he thought that doing so would position him better for a future leadership bid.
These essentially frivolous reasons for Cameron’s and Johnson’s actions before and during the referendum illustrate the chronic amateurism of much of Britain’s political class, especially that part of it which is associated with the Conservative Party—where high political office more often than not depends on wealth and social status than on experience or ability.
Both Cameron and Johnson are in fact typical members of Britain’s political and social elite. Both were born to wealth, and both of them were educated at Eton College and Oxford University, where as it happens both men belonged to the same social club, albeit at different times.
Eton College and Oxford University happen to be the two most famous educational institutions within the inordinately expensive and socially exclusive private educational system which trains Britain’s establishment. Access to both is effectively barred for cost reasons to the overwhelming majority of Britain’s population. However admission to them – especially to Eton College – acts as a passport to high office for those members of the elite who want it.
In the event, and not for the last time, the referendum result showed that Cameron, Johnson and the rest of the British establishment had completely misjudged the views and attitudes of the British population.
Instead of being bored and indifferent to the subject of Europe, British voters turned out to vote in what are by today’s standards high numbers (turnout was 72.2%, significantly higher than in recent general elections). More to the point, instead of (as expected) voting to stay in the EU they voted – albeit by a small margin of 52-48% – to leave.
The immediate result was the political establishment went through the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Cameron – overwhelmed by forces he had unleashed but barely understood, and not knowing what to do next – broke a promise he had given previously to stay irrespective of the referendum and resigned immediately. Johnson, equally unsure what to do in a situation he had never anticipated or prepared for, in turn bungled his own leadership bid, and failed to replace Cameron.
The result was that the post of British Prime Minister passed by default to May, a colourless and unimaginative administrator, whose lack of even the most basic political skills became cruelly exposed during the general election she called completely unnecessarily last year, which she nearly lost.
Since becoming Prime Minister, May – as might be expected of such a person – has approached the question of Brexit as an essentially technical question, to be ironed out in negotiations, with the overarching objective being to cause as little disruption to the British economy as possible so that things can continue to go on as before.
Inevitably that is an approach which favours keeping as much of the status quo as possible, with May looking to achieve a Brexit which retains Britain’s economic and trading links with the EU essentially unaffected.
Rejection of an Intolerable Status Quo
The result is a 98-page proposal for an association agreement between Britain and the EU, directly copied from those agreed with the EU by Moldova and Ukraine, whereby Britain would remain in fact, though not in name, a member of the European Single Market. Its economy would observe the EU’s regulatory structure as administered by the European Court of Justice, whose decisions on regulatory questions would continue to be binding on British companies.
Unsurprisingly this ‘solution’, which would leave Britain indefinitely subject to EU-made laws, in the making of which it would no longer have any say, satisfies nobody, and is being criticised by all sides.
The latest opinion poll shows that only 25% of Britons now think May is managing the negotiations with the EU successfully.
It would be a fundamental error however to see May as the cause of what practically everyone in Britain now agrees is a debacle. If May were the only problem, there would be no problem getting rid of her and replacing her with someone else. The fact that May is still there despite her all too obvious flaws and failures illustrates the underlying point: the problem is not May; it is Britain’s entire political class.
A proper response to the Brexit vote would have recognised that whatever it was, it was a rejection of the status quo, which has obviously become intolerable to much of the British public. Any response to the Brexit vote, which – like May’s plan – seeks to preserve the status quo, is therefore by definition flawed.
The British political class, once renowned for its sure-footedness and flexibility, would once have had no difficulty recognising this fact, unwelcome though it was. It would accordingly have focused its energy on responding to the Brexit vote in the way desired by the majority of British voters, by considering what part of the status quo has become objectionable and how it can be changed.
The focus would not have been on the negotiations, which by definition can only be a means to an end, but on formulating a plan to take Britain forward once it was outside the EU whilst responding to the concerns of the British public..
That would have required a thorough study of the state of Britain’s society and economy, leading to what might have been a heated but real debate about what was needed to be changed. Eventually, after a period of acrimony and argument, a programme to prepare Britain for life outside the EU would have emerged and a negotiating position could have been formed around it, which could have been presented to the EU in the negotiations.
There is no of course guarantee the EU would have agreed to whatever the British proposed, but at least a proper discussion would have happened followed by a real negotiation between two equal partners, with the British knowing their own minds and having a set of clear goals which they would have been working towards. If the negotiations were unsuccessful the British would then have been free to put their plans into effect by themselves, with steps taken in advance to prepare for that contingency.
In the event nothing like that has happened. There has been no debate within the British establishment either about the state of Britain or about what needs to be done to change it. Nor have any serious steps been taken to prepare for the possibility that the negotiations with the EU might be unsuccessful.
The reason for that is that taking a close, hard look at the state of Britain’s society and economy and working out a programme of reform to adjust them to the world after Brexit is something that Britain’s establishment is today both unable and unwilling to do. As beneficiaries of the 1980s Thatcherite settlement they want things to remain as they are, and have no wish or idea of how to change them. Besides, it is doubtful whether they any longer have either the technical skill or the experience, or even the self-confidence to meet such a challenge.
The result is that instead of the genuine debate that needs to happen about what sort of country Britain needs to be, there has been a sterile debate between supporters of ‘soft Brexit’, which it is now clear boils down to May’s proposed association agreement with the EU, and ‘hard Brexit’, with advocates of the latter talking grandly about a clean break with the EU and about trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, but without having much idea of what that means in practice.
In such a situation it becomes easier to understand why despite her failures, May remains Prime Minister. In a vacuum of ideas a Prime Minister without ideas appears to suit the situation.
In reality, outside the establishment, there is no shortage in Britain today of ideas about how to take the country forward.
The individual who has come to crystallise for many people the challenge to the status quo is Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran left wing politician who leads the Labour Party. He not only very visibly bested May in last year’s general election, but most certainly does have a set of ideas for taking Britain forward.
Corbyn is one of the most misrepresented figures in British politics. By the standards of earlier Labour politicians he is by no means radical. His desire for a mixed economy, with significant sections brought back into public ownership and certain elements of planning reintroduced, and his support for strong social services and for high investment in state funded education and health care are all to be paid for through progressive taxation. His longstanding opposition to military adventures overseas, as well, all fall squarely within what was once the British Labour Party’s social democratic mainstream.
At any time up to the 1980s Corbyn’s current policy positions (as opposed to some of the positions he once held in his youth) would not have been considered controversial in Labour terms. On the contrary they represent a return to the policies followed in Britain’s social democratic heyday by the previous Labour governments of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson.
Even Corbyn’s well known support for extra Parliamentary political activity, which many of his critics profess to see as somehow dangerous and ‘extreme’, is actually in Labour Party terms completely traditional. The Labour Party after all is itself the product of extra Parliamentary political activity, having been formed at the start of the twentieth century by Britain’s labour unions and by various voluntary societies operating outside Parliament. Indeed for most of its history the Labour Party spoke of itself as the “political wing” of a “Labour movement” whose “industrial wing” was the labour unions.
Clinging to Class Interests
The difficulty is that though Corbyn’s social democratic programme does indeed offer an alternative to the Thatcherite settlement, which in Britain represents the status quo, and is a conceivable programme around which to prepare Britain for life outside the EU, it is also one which is completely unacceptable to Britain’s establishment.
Ever since the 1990s the establishment has not only accepted the 1980s Thatcher neoliberal settlement, but has massively benefitted from it to the point where in the public mind it is increasingly associated with it. The idea that it could be successfully challenged was until recently, for the establishment, literally unthinkable since that would have meant acknowledging that the status and power of the establishment itself could be challenged.
That is why until the 2017 election the establishment – which to be clear includes the entire parliamentary faction of the Labour Party and the media – found it impossible to take Corbyn seriously. It is also why Corbyn is the target of such extreme establishment hostility, including from within his own party.
As a result of the outcome of the 2017 election, which showed that Corbyn’s programme is actually popular – especially amongst Britons of working age and younger – came as a shock. It was for the establishment at least as great a shock as that of the Brexit referendum of the year before.
Not only was the election outcome horrifying to them in itself, but it also – like the result of the Brexit referendum – further underscored the extent to which the establishment has lost ground with the public.
It is that sense of disconnection which gives the political crisis in Britain its peculiar character. An establishment which senses itself challenged and which is no longer sure of its support in the country is afraid to risk the traditional method in Britain of resolving a political crisis, which is another general election. Indeed it is now so insecure about its position that it is nervous of taking any step at all, such as replacing a Prime Minister who is discredited and unpopular.
Different Than the Nineties
The situation differs fundamentally from the one in the early 1990s, when another Conservative government had become unpopular. Though the Conservatives at that time were divided and unpopular, the part of the British establishment associated with the Labour Party was brimming with self-confidence, and was both eager and able to take charge. Since it too was fully committed to preserving the 1980s Thatcher settlement, an election did not threaten fundamental change or challenge the position of the establishment in the way that an election might do now.
The result is an impasse, with the establishment – including sections of the Labour Party – desperate at almost any cost to avoid an election and the attendant risk of a Corbyn government, but incapable of formulating an alternative path forward.
The nature of the crisis is elegantly summed up in the following words of an article in The Guardian, quoting the comments of a senior Conservative MP.
A senior Tory backbencher on the 1922 committee executive said on Thursday that May had the “best chief whip ever” and that he would still save her. “He is called Jeremy Corbyn. Just mention the threat of a Corbyn government and our people come into line.”
The reality is that political logic clearly points to the need for a Corbyn government. Given that Corbyn is the only leader who is offering a way forward, a government led by him is the only way to restore a sense of direction and coherence. Resisting that logic is simply deepening the crisis and creating more drift. One senses that government has all but broken down, with only administrative tasks still being performed, as senior ministers plot and war against each other, without however having any overarching idea of what they want to do.
Whether a Corbyn government, if it were elected, would be able to implement its programme in the face of the immense opposition it would face is another matter. Corbyn has so far repeatedly defied predictions by overcoming every obstacle in his path. Whether as Prime Minister he would be able to go on doing so is a question only the future can tell.
What is beyond doubt however is that a Corbyn government must be tried. The alternative is that the crisis becomes entrenched and deepens, in which case other, altogether more alarming forces might start to emerge. Already what looks like the early signs of this are there.
Gramsci put it best: “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.”
In Britain – as any reader of British newspapers knows – the “morbid symptoms” are currently there in abundance.