What consequences will Brexit have for British politics? Given all that happened in the past years since the referendum, it is hard to imagine British politics ever returning to what it was prior to 2016.
Written by Professor Pauline Schnapper, Sorbonne Nouvelle University.
The UK’s referendum on EU membership in 2016 and the Brexit process that followed exposed a number of underlying failures and tensions in the British political system which elections fought based on a first-past-the-post system had only partly concealed until then. The level of distrust towards parties and Parliament had already been documented in different opinion polls. Surveys such as the Hansard Society’s Audit of Engagement show that voters increasingly distrusted political parties, Parliament, the judiciary and the BBC among others, which translated into lower turnout levels at the general election and a dwindling party membership. But the referendum made new issues more salient.
First, it showed a number of ‘new’ cleavages along different lines. In short, the first one was the cleavage between ‘Remainer London’ and the rest of England, which was also translated into a difference between big cities and university towns on the one hand- voting mostly for remain, sometimes by a very large majority - and their peripheries, towns and rural areas on the other which opted to leave. The second one was age, with most young people choosing to stay whereas older people, especially above 65, supported Brexit by a majority of two-thirds. The third cleavage was education, with university graduates voting to stay by a large margin while the majority of people who had no higher education chose to leave the EU.
The referendum and the period that followed also contributed to a further weakening of traditional British institutions and undermined their legitimacy. Some of the usual roles of parties, such as framing public debate and organising campaigns, were bypassed by the use of the referendum. Their leaders’ cues were also mostly ignored by voters: all party leaders except Nigel Farage campaigned (arguably more or less enthusiastically) for Remain, yet Leave won.
In the months that followed the referendum, Leave supporters in politics and the media also launched unprecedented attacks against the House of Commons, e.g when it asserted its right to decide on the activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, when it failed to ratify Theresa May’s EU agreement in early 2019 or when it rejected the prospect of a no-deal exit in the Autumn of 2019. Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, though it was judged illegal by the Supreme Court, exacerbated the tension between the executive and legislative powers, with the judiciary called for to solve the dispute and then itself pilloried by the Brexiters.
The multi-level and multi-faceted polarisation around Brexit, and beyond that around identity issues and cultural values more generally, often predated the referendum but was exacerbated by the Brexit process, ushering in a period of political, and for some commentators, constitutional crisis which lasted for three and a half years, and was marked by numerous ministerial resignations, changes in party leadership and two general elections.
The December 2019 general election, at first sight, has put an end to this extraordinary period. The Conservative party under Johnson, having purged its pro-EU wing, was able to attract most Leave votes, whereas the Remain vote was split between the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. As a result, a mainstream party won a comfortable majority in the House of Commons for the first time since 2005 and embarked on a five-year period in power, in an apparent return to a two-party system which had already been visible in the 2017 general election (when the two parties won over 85% of the votes). The UKIP party and its follower, the Brexit party, have all but disappeared from the political scene. The EU withdrawal agreement was quickly ratified, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, in accordance with ‘the will of the people’ as it was expressed in 2016. As a result, one can expect a more ‘normal’ relationship between the executive and legislative in the foreseeable future.
Equally and in the short term at least, questions about a possible written constitution in the future, which had been raised - as they are regularly - during the parliamentary stalemate, have also disappeared from the public debate. The same is true for the debate on reforming the electoral system, which never really rose during the political crisis. The idea of introducing some proportional representation to make Parliament more representative of the variety of opinions and of parties in the country, and possibly to help reconnect citizens and politics has not really been contemplated since the failure of the 2011 referendum.
Yet it is hard to imagine British politics returning to what it was prior to 2016, and not just because another difficult negotiation is starting in Brussels which could revive previous inter-party and intra-party conflicts. Regional and demographical divisions as well as distrust towards politicians remain strong. Policy choices more generally will have a strong impact on the political mood across the country. The Johnson government will need to choose between a neo-liberal agenda which includes diverging from EU regulations and could affect poorer areas of the north of England disproportionately, and more spending on public services with a bigger role for the state to rebalance the economy. It is still early to assess whether a more inclusive or a divisive path will be taken.
As far as institutions are concerned, the political and policy choices that the new government will make are still open. Will it continue on the populist path embraced by Johnson in his quest for power, as the present threats to reduce the powers of the Supreme Court and reduce public funding for the BBC seem to point to? Or will it return to a less divisive style of governance? This would mean toning down the ‘people vs elite’ rhetoric that Conservative Brexiters used successfully in the last four years.
Finally, the elephant in the room very much remains the future of the Union, which has been undermined by the 2016 referendum and developments since then in an unprecedented way. The different results in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the EU referendum still impact the political climate and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In Scotland, opinion polls show a shift towards independence as a way to remain in the EU, or rather reapply to it. If the SNP party continues to dominate the Scottish scene after next year’s Holyrood election, it will be increasingly difficult for the central government to ignore calls for a second referendum on independence. In Northern Ireland, nationalist calls for a reunited Ireland continue to increase and the success of Sinn Fein in the recent election in the Republic shows that this is a conversation that has a real momentum on the island. The ripple effects of the Brexit vote on domestic politics are definitely not over.
Photo credit: Brexit Demonstrator Westminster, Wikimedia commons