There must be something rather poetic about seeing the Palace of Westminster bandaged with tarpaulins and propped up by a tower of scaffolding. Brexit, which the ringleaders presented as a blow only to Continental institutions, is rocking the bricks and mortar of Blighty instead.
Transformation is taking place inside Westminster just as much as it is outside. Thanks to Brexit, the UK’s two main political parties find themselves in a position of existential crisis from which they may never emerge the same.
Several days ago, former Labour and Conservative party strategists revealed new findings, declaring the next stage in the evolution of British politics. The Brexit hubbub means the large-scale redrawing of the perimeters of UK politics, as the internationalist vs. nationalist fault line runs straight underneath traditional party boundaries which have long been based on the weight of our wallets. And if the painfully slow wade through unchartered Brexit waters since the EU referendum has proven anything, uniting equally passionate globalist and more nationalist, realist factions under one gargantuan left or right-wing party construct is an impossible task.
Brexit questions the efficacy of the entire UK political machine. So much for a vote presented as a threat only to Brussels. Soon enough, the UK may have to give way to the regeneration of its own party system. Numerous European nations have seen the upstart of new poltical movements, bringing immense structural change. Britain could be next. Most notably, Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche has become become the world’s latest proponent of cooperation and centrism, transforming the French political scene.
More importantly, the one key side effect of the rise in support for Macron’s ambitious project has been the emergence of other new, more specific rival political forces. France’s new right-wing force Agir could pose problems for En Marche and Les Républicains. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s new left-wing bloc, La France Insoumise, has not gone unnoticed either, as the the Parti Socialiste tries to regain stability.
I am sceptical of En Marche, and do think that soon enough it will struggle to balance so much opinion in one party construct. Centrism is often fine on paper, but in principle it can be almost impossible to please all. On such grounds, a Macron-style centrist movement might not last long in Britain. The simultaneous subscription of socially democratic globalists and more centre-right pro-EUers to such a project does sound a little pie-in-the-sky for reasons of domestic debacle. The New Labour experiment taught us this.
But even if En Marche and its centrist masterplan does eventually run into problems, it would have, above all, been responsible for the wider regeneration of French politics. Through the byproduction of new opposition parties, En Marche has kick-started the transformation of a once black-and-white dualist system into a kaleidoscopic party landscape.
A form of political fragmentation similar to that seen by France could soon enough take place in Britain as well. If the Labour and Conservative parties remain caught up in the Eurosceptic-globalist traffic jam which cuts their parties in half, a breakdown into new political entities is the next step. Momentum, bolstering the radical politics of Corbyn, has already broken from the legacy of Tony Blair and could finally split the Labour Party one day soon. Furthermore, Pro-EU Conservatives are restless and tired with May’s sympathy for demands for a harder Brexit.
But at the hands of Brexit, the realisation of such a rejuvenation seems unlikely. As our politicians scurry around nervously, 29 March 2019 looming on the horizon, our political system is becoming stagnant. In its haste to implement Brexit no matter what, our government’s ‘put on’ show of uncompromised strength and unity is distracting from the structural wake up call triggered by Brexit, which remains to be answered.
Tragically, the impossibility of Brexit means that this call is ringing out. Our binary political system might be ready to evolve beyond its class-based design, revolutionised by the globalisation debate triggered by Brexit. But whilst all alone, Britain must cling onto every ounce of life that remains and to what it knows. It seems that the consistently lagging beat of our decades-old party system is the only rhythm to which Britain knows how to march.
For Theresa May, the appearance of strong government is paramount; without party unity amongst Remainers and Brexiters, her Brexit game plan would be flimsy. Britain, adamant that its ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude and naturally stiff upper lip is the right approach, is witnessing the demise of its own politics. The nation’s retreat back into itself, an indulgence in the nostalgia of the country’s domineering, imperial days, only prevents the creation of a better Britain, and the flourishing of new parties which reflect the UK’s place in a globalised world.
Similarly, in trying to build effective opposition to the Conservative government, the Labour party is left torn. Haunted by its leader’s Eurosceptic past, Labour is caught in the headlights when it comes to Brexit. Even its policy away weekend in February – something just to corporate-sounding for Corbyn – failed to burn away the mist. If it splits whilst Theresa May trudges on, it will be in a worse position than the Conservatives. On the other hand, if it stays together, it denies itself the chance to truly regenerate, escaping the construction which has been so obviously in need of reform since the dawn of Tony Blair.
What goes around comes around. A national unwillingness to see the bigger picture and to compromise within the European arena is translating into a paralysing inability to progress and see sense at home. Issues of globalisation will underline British politics for decades to come. Our party system has to give way to decisive changes in opinion surrounding migration, liberal economics, and supranational justice. But the scratchy Brexit record is drowning out the calls for such a transformation. The stalemate lies in the fact that no party will split unless the other does, and that Brexit requires a self-destructive demonstration of national stubbornness, a sort of faith in a system of ‘good old’ – but more nonsensical – common sense that is doomed to fail some day soon.
Brexit was presented as the chance to improve our country. But it makes dealing with the future evolution of our own politics next to impossible. The EU referendum has opened a fresh can of worms. Our parties must move to reflect questions of our relationship with an irrefutably globalised world, not just those surrounding life at home. But until we give up on brokering a Brexit deal no matter the consequences, breaking our back to remain confident in ourselves even if such a plan is pointless, an adaptation to the nationalist-internationalist divide cannot be put in place.
As our government pulls out all the stops to push through a deal, even if it comes at the enormous price of our own political evolution, it is obvious that Brexit was anything but a vote to take back control. Instead, it was a vote to wallow in our own folly and to bathe in the comfort of our own nation, no matter how flawed, whilst our neighbours grow taller and flourish beside us.