British politics is being profoundly reshaped by populism
BRITAIN should have been better placed than any other country to fight off the populist fever that is spreading around the world. The House of Commons is one of the oldest representative institutions on Earth. The country’s last violent revolution was in the middle of the 17th century. With politicians as different as Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher denouncing them as “a device for dictators and demagogues”, Britain avoided nationwide referendums until 1975 and has only used them three times. The British erect statues to statesmen and women in Parliament rather than to “the people”.
Yet British politics is currently being reshaped by populism. The essence of populism is the belief that society can be divided into two antagonistic classes—the people and the powerful. The people are presumed to have a single will. The powerful are presumed to be devious and corrupt: determined to feather their own nests and adept at using intermediary institutions (courts, media companies, political parties) to frustrate the people.
You can see evidence of this everywhere in British politics. The Brexiteers’ clinching argument is always the same: “The people have spoken.” The Daily Mail has branded the judges of the High Court as “enemies of the people” and urged Theresa May to “crush the saboteurs”. On November 15th the Daily Telegraph tried to out-Mail the Mail by printing photographs of the 15 Tory MPs who had indicated that they would vote against Mrs May’s attempt to enshrine the date that Britain leaves the European Union into law and branding them “the Brexit mutineers”.
Far from fighting off the virus of populism, Britain is becoming its most surprising victim. British politicians may look civilised compared with, say, Hungary’s Viktor Orban or America’s Donald Trump. But Mr Orban rules a country that has been scarred by communism and Mr Trump is hedged in by checks and balances galore. Americans will be rid of Mr Trump by 2021 or 2025. The Brexit referendum will continue to shape British politics for decades to come.
Britain has succumbed to the populist virus because it decided to apply the most powerful tool in the populist toolbox—the referendum—to the most profound question in British political economy—its relationship with its main political and economic partner. The subsequent debate pitted Britain’s entire ruling class, from the leaders of the three main political parties to the heads of multinational companies, against a ragbag army of rebels, troublemakers and mavericks. By voting Leave, the British not only elected to change their relationship with the European Union but also to reorder their political system.
The most visible result of this reordering is the chaos of daily politics. Since the referendum two of Britain’s three main parties have lost their leaders, Theresa May has fought a botched election, the cabinet has been paralysed by infighting and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hard-left leader, has become prime-minister-in-waiting. The less visible result is a constitutional revolution. Before the referendum, Parliament was sovereign (though, as Brexiteers rightly pointed out, the EU kept encroaching on that sovereignty). Now, for the first time in Britain’s long parliamentary history, most MPs feel obliged to vote for a policy that they oppose—in other words, to give in to a populist revolution. Three-quarters of MPs voted for Remain. Only two parties, with a combined total of nine MPs—the UK Independence Party with one and the Democratic Unionists with eight—supported Brexit. Still, the chances of Parliament scuppering the withdrawal are small.
Why did a traditionally cautious people decide to take such a radical step? Roy Jenkins, a former cabinet minister, once pronounced that the British voted to stay in the European Community (as it then was) because they “took the advice of people they were used to following”. David Cameron, the unwitting Faust of Britain’s populist revolution, chose to call the referendum at a time of maximum disillusionment with those “people they were used to following”. Voters felt they had little in common with politicians who seemed to come with identikit backgrounds (a posh university and a spell in a think-tank) and identikit views (cosmopolitan liberalism). And they felt that politicians had messed up the government of the country. Both Labour and the Tories had claimed to know how to harness globalisation for the common good. But the financial crisis of 2008 had led to the deepest recession for decades, with real wages falling and productivity growth stalling. Many Britons used the referendum as an excuse to deliver a one-fingered salute to their supposed betters.
Here to stay
The strongest justification of the referendum is that it was a one-off vote to settle the vexed constitutional question of Britain’s relationship with the EU: once Britain has reasserted its independence, the sovereignty of Parliament will be restored and populism contained. This is wishful thinking. If Britain withdraws from the EU, the economic shock will be profound. Those who will suffer most will be the very people who voted for Brexit as a cry of defiance (the depreciation of sterling since the referendum has already disproportionately hit the lowest-paid, by pushing up the price of food and fuel). Meanwhile, if Parliament somehow scuppers the process, there could be riots in the streets.
The biggest beneficiary of this turmoil is Mr Corbyn. He has always been a populist. A long-standing admirer of firebrands such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, he believes that Parliament is only one arena for the people’s struggle against the powerful. His supporters have already toyed with de-selecting MPs who do not toe the hard-left party line and with engaging in direct action to bring down Mrs May’s government. They have also built a personality cult around Mr Corbyn as the true voice of the people in a corrupt political world. It could be a very long time indeed before British politics returns to what was once regarded as normal.