A week, or a day, or an hour, or whatever it is now, is a long time in politics. By that logic then, 433 days is a very long time in politics. That’s how long it’s been since last year’s general election, which I’m going to use as a marker for the beginning of The Fall of British Politics.
Everything seemed so reasonable and certain back then, didn’t it? The notion of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister was too most people just a bit funny – not the end of the world. Today politics and political choices feel a lot more visceral, real and dangerous. With each resignation or leadership bid or attempted coup or cabinet reshuffle the nation waits on tenterhooks with a very real sense that if something goes wrong, everything could go wrong; a sense that the whole house of cards that is the British establishment and its institutions could fall and take the markets, our place in the world, and ordinary working people down with it.
That’s why it’s important for everyone in or associated with the Westminster Bubble to be careful to not revel too much in all of the minute-by-minute developments or seeing the past two weeks just as an intermediate climax in the great game of British politics. For the first time in a long time democracy and its workings seems to have a very clear connection to actual events that change people’s lives. A disappointing result in a general election might lead some to worry for a few days and then realise that they’ll have another chance to change things in a few years. The result of the referendum, however, feels ominously permanent.
Because, by the nature of it being a binary in-out referendum, voters had a variety of different visions of Brexit even though they all put a cross in the same box. So now that we’ve made this permanent if not generational decision to leave the EU, we have given politicians the permission to make a fundamental change that will have lasting consequences whilst leaving the interpretation as to what that change will actually be beyond leaving the EU entirely up to them. Thus the criticism that referenda give too much power to the people is clearly nonsensical – the British people have voted on masse to give our politicians and their judgement far more power than ever before. The backstabbing and the infighting in every political party right now should give us pause for thought because it could indicate that they were not, and are not prepared for the weight of this new-found responsibility. So why did voters make this decision and why were their politicians so utterly unaware of what was coming?
First I believe there was a collective misinterpretation of Cameron’s surprise electoral success in May last year. The now redundant phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” was banded around as a simple explanation of the swing to the Tories – voters in marginal seats, it was said repeatedly, did not trust Labour on the economy. This is in part true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The key issue in that election that was cutting through to voters in marginal English constituencies was the prospect of Hung Parliament resulting in a Labour-SNP coalition. Voters were bringing this up to Conservative campaigners unprompted well before CCHQ even realised the potential for using the issue as a political football shortly after the Scottish Independence Referendum in September 2014. Why was this fear so potent and effective in clearing up votes? It was because it was the first time the English had a very clear threat to their own sovereignty from an external agitator in modern times – one misplaced vote and your taxes would be used to fund the exploits of that previously comical but now potentially powerful character from across the border – Alex Salmond.
This was such a resonant issue not because of an inherent fear of Scottish politicians in Middle England, but because it affirmed a general sense of a loss of control that was precipitous of the 2008 financial crisis. As the world became ever more globalised an interconnected, voters felt increasingly that they were at the whim of events beyond their democratic influence and the remit of their elected representatives.
The EU referendum and the Vote Leave campaign played into this fear that had been energised by the Scottish vote and the 2015 campaign. Ears have been twitching across England and Wales ever since – anxious and averse to any foreign players that could further entrench their disconnection from and loss of control over the decisions that matter to their lives. So when told that Brussels wanted an ever closer union and a ‘United States of Europe’ that would ever degrade the democratic power of the British voter, they replied with ‘how do I stop it?’. The referendum result has also been misinterpreted in my view – voters did not vote to leave an institution but to stop a process. Because processes and movements have been, since 2015, speeding up. It’s reached the point where the past two weeks’ developments could provide enough material for 10 years’ worth of 20th century politics.
The unfortunate paradox facing the nation then is that voters have thrown an awfully large spanner into the works in attempt to slow things down, but have instead increased the pace of change by accidently creating a political vacuum that demands rapid political ascensions in attempt for someone, anyone, to try and pick up the pieces. Hopefully whoever that is, whom we assume as our new Prime Minister to be Theresa May, will reflect on how we got to the position that required her leadership and learns lessons from it.