It looks like the dust will soon settle in British politics, and when it does we will all get a better sense of what is happening with Brexit. While there is still a chance that Johnson will ignore Parliament, refuse to seek an extension, and allow Britain to leave the European Union on October 31, it appears more likely that the prime minister will reluctantly seek an extension and the country will have a general election.
If this happens, the Conservative Party—threatened on the right flank by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party—will be forced to run a campaign promising a timely exit from the E.U. There are even indications that they will run on an explicitly “no deal” platform. The other parties will scramble to take the other side of the issue—even if, as in the case of Labour, their hearts are not in it.
It may appear strange that such a fundamental issue as leaving the E.U. has become effectively an electoral issue, with parties positioning themselves in order to maximize their political power. A naïve observer might question why politicians would put party over country and engage in such opportunism. But this would be to misunderstand not only the nature of E.U. membership, but also British politics in the postwar era.
Since the E.U. question arose in the 1970s, there has always been a sharp divide between opportunists and principled politicians. From the beginning, this divide was not along a left-right axis. The two leading politicians advocating for remaining outside the E.U. in the 1970s were Tony Benn and Enoch Powell. Powell was a right-wing Tory known for his opposition to mass immigration. Benn was a left-wing radical in the English mold. He saw the E.U. as a “capitalist club” and a threat to the British democratic institutions that he believed were shaped by popular struggle through the centuries.
The opportunists in this period included then Prime Minister Ted Heath and—this may surprise some readers—Margaret Thatcher. These politicians were not so much political opportunists, like the vulgar creatures populating the parties today, but ideological opportunists. They believed (wrongly) that most of Britain’s problems stemmed from economic rigidity, and that if the British economy could be moved to a more “free market” model, these political and economic problems would evaporate. Since the E.U. was embracing increasingly free market policies, they saw E.U. membership as a potential means to overcome Britain’s internal political divisions and force these policies through.
This tradition of ideological opportunism would continue to provide the main base of support for British membership in the E.U. throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Thatcher would eventually turn on the E.U. as a more social democratic ethos began to seep into its institutions—hardly the brave and principled stance from the “Iron Lady” that many on the right might expect—but this new social democratic ethos found ready allies on the Blairite center-left. Decades of ideological opportunism on both sides of the British establishment solidified support for the E.U. as a sort of natural gut reaction from the unthinking drones who run British political life. This was soon transferred to the urban middle classes at large through the liberal newspapers and the BBC.
All this considered, the situation in Britain today looks somewhat different. How are we to interpret the fact that E.U. membership in Britain has always been pushed by opportunists of one type or another? The only way to understand this is to see that, since 1945 and especially since the 1970s, Britain has been a country in dire social, political, and economic decline.
This decline is mainly structural, a result of the disappearance of the British Empire. Faced with this decline, however, the British elite became increasingly less interested in Britain. They stopped identifying primarily as leaders of Britain and instead formed alternative identities: pan-European free marketeers, pan-European social democrats, and so on.
On this reading, Margaret Thatcher’s British patriotism was phony. She and those around her should be read primarily as ideologues attached to the abstract principles of free market economics. The Blairites, on the other hand, did not even try to hide their contempt for the country. This was crystalized perfectly in a now famous statement by Blair’s adviser Andrew Neather: He wrote that Labour wanted to push for an aggressively multicultural Britain to “rub the Right’s nose in it.” The “Right” here was synonymous with those still attached to a monocultural Britain—a category, rather ironically, that may well have included leftist radical Tony Benn.
In light of all this, the reason the British political system has collapsed in the face of Brexit should be clear. Britain is a country where the political and economic elite no longer really believe in the country. They have formed alternative identities and begun to worship a plethora of false gods. They panic at the idea that the population at large might entrap them in what they consider a failing and antiquated country. And they would rather see this country and its institutions destroyed than find themselves locked in what they view as a cage, one in which they must sleep on a hard bench next to their fellow countrymen whom they not-so-secretly despise.
John William O'Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.