British politics are a terrible mess. But don’t blame populism, however that’s defined. If anything, blame democracy – however that’s organized.
Last June’s referendum result on Brexit was close – 52 percent voted for Britain to leave the European Union; 48 percent to stay – but indisputable. Unlike in the U.S., no one believes that Russia altered the outcome. And this was a vote not to “drain the swamp” of Westminster, but to strengthen it. As Gisela Stuart, one of the few Labour MPs who campaigned enthusiastically for Brexit as the head of the “Vote Leave” campaign put it, the electors “wanted to restore genuine democratic government and take back control of the laws that govern them.”
Brexit is what happened when people were given a voice. No doubt that many who voted for it were uninformed; some were voting for a better yesterday; many were fearful of the effects of mass immigration – especially of Muslims. A few Britons didn’t want any foreigners at all. But above all, they wanted to “take back control,” and believed that political power should reside in the British parliament – which is comprehensible in its workings and dignified by centuries of existence – rather than in a series of institutions in Brussels, confusing in their overlapping and largely mysterious operations.
No matter that those with more sophisticated views of governance saw the desire as foolish: “an attempt to create a romantic idea of what Britain could be like out of the EU,” said the Liverpool University political scientist Andrew Crines. The majority wanted politics to be at least within their understanding, their representatives – liked or loathed – familiar.
It is this view that has rumbled along beneath the surface for most of the 44 years in which Britain has been a member of the European Union: it is what Prime Minster Theresa May meant in her Brexit speech to politicians in Florence on Friday, when she said that the EU “never felt to us like an integral part of our national story.”
That feeling was quiescent at times, especially during the 13 years of a Labour government, from 1997 to 2010, fevered at others. It was most turbulent during Conservative administrations: the last three Conservative Prime Ministers – Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) John Major (1990-1997) and David Cameron (2010-2016) all lost power because they were fatally weakened by the internal argument on Europe within their party. No one gives Theresa May much hope of avoiding the Brussels curse which has wreaked so much damage on her predecessors.
The British prime minister is seen as someone clinging on to power, at the mercy of fellow ministers who could, at any time, bring her down. The most ambitious of these, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, has revealed his desire to lead his country most clearly. In an article in the Telegraph, he lauded the UK in the most elevated rhetoric employed in the Brexit cause, largely devoid of his trademark jests, expressing a bounding belief that “we can become the greatest country on earth.”
Giving only the briefest mention to his prime minister, he took over 4000 words to make the vision of a liberated Britain his own, striking a Churchillian pose with “I do not underestimate the scale of the task ahead as we take back control of our destiny” – the kind of rhetoric wholly absent from May’s cautious, if more precise, speeches.
Her Florence speech, clearly something of a compromise between her cabinet factions, vague on many details, nevertheless laid down a process, if not a destination: honoring commitments (that is, probably a 20 billion GBP – about $27 billion – payment to the EU), adopting new laws to protect the existing rights of European citizens living in the UK and passing through a two-year transition to give both sides, especially the UK, time to adjust to a customized relationship not based on the trade pacts which other, non-EU countries, have with the EU.
May’s all-but-impossible job is – as she interprets it – to keep a party and a cabinet with many Remainers in it relatively united, and to retain at least the acquiescence of the senior diplomats and civil servants, of the Bank of England and the main institutions of state, many – probably most – of whom believe Brexit to be most grievously self-wounding, consigning Britain not to greatness but to marginality.
Speaking in Washington earlier this week, Mark Carney, the Canadian who leads the Bank of England, warned of higher inflation, interest rate rises and slower growth, and forecast that Britain – unlike the other advanced countries – would be “an example of deglobalization, not globalization.”
The former close aide to the prime minister, Nick Timothy – whom May was told to fire after nearly losing the election in June – wrote ahead of May’s Florence speech that Chancellor Philip Hammond, was “maneuvering” towards a partial Brexit, failing to promote its advantages and, in his behind-the-scenes arguments with Boris Johnson, playing “games” with the future of the country.
These “maneuvers,” and many more at every level of government, are deployed around the office of an embattled prime minister who, with a relatively modest personality (for a senior politician), has no powerful public presence with which to offset the impression of barely-controlled chaos. Meanwhile, every institution at home and abroad affected by Brexit – there are many – call loudly and daily for a certainty at which the government has not yet arrived, and an easy transition which it cannot guarantee.
In a much-discussed book, “The Road to Somewhere”, the journalist David Goodhart (disclosure: a former Financial Times colleague, and a friend, of this columnist) sees in British society a widening split. On one side there are those who are anywhere people: at home in a globalizing world, with liberal views, enthusiastically pro-European, scornful of rootedness - “progressive individualists.” On the other, somewhere people, much more rooted in family and local work and friendships, not (in the main) bigoted but slow to adapt, worried by too-rapid change - “decent populists.”
Admitting that each side usually shares aspects of the other, he argues that the somewhere people have lost out in status, income and visibility in the last few decades, to the point where they often tell pollsters that they barely recognize the country they live in. Much more strongly represented in the working and lower middle class, less often university-educated, generally older than the anywheres, they still are the largest bloc in the country – and in the referendum, their pent-up vexations were allowed a release.
Their decision was probably not a wise act, but it was a thoroughly democratic one. They have given their country’s leadership one monster of a job: to reconcile what is a still globalizing world with their need for esteem and a restored sense that their country is recognizable, and that it is theirs.
Prime Minister May, brave as she is to shoulder the task, may not be up to it. Foreign Secretary Johnson careless as he is with both the truth and his loyalty, may be. Or, as some conservatives fear, the far-left leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, will soon be prime minister. Such is the mayhem unleashed by the effort to satisfy the popular will.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror". He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.