The referendum was the start of a national re-alignment of British politicsby Rachel Sylvester / July 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
If all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, then politics right now is a bizarre piece of avant-garde theatre—surreal, confusing and unpredictable, with the ending still unwritten. One Conservative minister said: “It feels like when you are at a play and the lights go down. People in black T-shirts come in and start quietly moving the furniture around. Then the lights come up and you see what has happened. The set is being re-arranged around us in the dark and we still have no idea where everything is going to end up.”
After a dramatic first act, in which the British public voted to leave the European Union, both main parties and Ukip are effectively leaderless. Jean-Paul Sartre’s line “Hell is other people”—which comes, appropriately enough, from the play No Exit—could be a slogan for politics right now. The Prime Minister has resigned, and the Leader of the Opposition has lost the support of his MPs, while Boris Johnson has gone from frontrunner to succeed David Cameron to has-been. Nigel Farage has stepped down as Ukip leader, declaring that now he has got his country back he wants his life back. Meanwhile, out in the real world, sterling has slumped, the markets are jittery, business investment has slowed sharply and there has been an increase in racist attacks. In a way that is deeply unsettling for all at Westminster, Britain appears to be divided: geographically, socially, culturally and by age. Peter Hennessy, the historian and veteran Whitehall-watcher said: “The referendum was like a lightning flash which illuminated a landscape that had long been changing. The country is fragmenting and I fear a fuse has been lit under the Union too.” In his view, the UK’s global role has also been shaken to its core. “From being a stabilising country in the world we have become a destabilising one,” he said. “The two major political parties are eating themselves, with all the nervous energy going inwards. I have never known quite so many dials that need resetting.”
Tribal loyalties and class-based allegiances are vanishing from British life, with the result that politics is more fluid than ever before. In 1966, only 13 per cent of voters had chosen a different party in the previous election. Last year, according to the British Election Study, 38 per cent of people switched parties between 2010 and 2015. It’s a trend that was reinforced, dramatically, by the EU referendum. Vast numbers of Labour voters in the industrial heartlands backed Brexit, even though the party’s official position, supported by almost all its MPs and its leader, if half-heartedly, was to “Remain.” In some areas, 70 per cent of Labour supporters voted against the party line. There was a parallel rebellion in the Tory Party, where a majority of activists and almost half the Cabinet defied their leader to support Brexit. People who have lost the habit of unthinking party allegiance will not regain it any time soon.