The EU referendum campaign, and its immediate aftermath, has starkly demonstrated the atrocious quality of political leadership in the UK.
The Conservative Party, once the party of the Establishment, is now led by reckless chancers. In the past six years, David Cameron has twice called referenda on fundamental constitutional issues, merely for short-term political gain. His resignation signals his total disinterest in accepting the responsibility for the outcome of this gamble, for his pathetic renegotiation of British EU membership, and for the weak, scaremongering Remain campaign. He reportedly asked an aide, ‘why should I do the hard shit?’. Having narrowly avoided the UK’s destruction in the close-fought Scottish referendum, he has reignited Scottish separatism and even provoked Sinn Fein to demand a vote on Irish reunification. Cameron leaves the British state in a profound political, and possibly constitutional, crisis.
Strikingly, though, Brexiters seem equally reluctant to take responsibility for the referendum’s outcome. The vote may have exposed the void between the people and political elites but, having stared into that void, Leave campaigners have immediately recoiled, indicating they will not implement the policies that many Leave voters backed just a few days ago. Even before the ballots were counted, UKIP leader Nigel Farage – expecting Remain to ‘edge it’ – admitted that promises made around NHS funding had been misplaced. Conservatives, divided in a remarkably bitter campaign, played down their differences and jointly urged David Cameron to remain as prime minister. Despite Leave campaigners absurd talk of the referendum being ‘independence day’, Boris Johnson now insists that the UK should not rush to invoke Article 50 and formally leave the EU, and proposes very limited changes to the UK-EU relationship. Tory minister Anna Soubry’s claim that Johnson did not expect to win and does not actually favour leaving the EU rings true. Leading Leave campaigners are now even insisting that immigration may not be capped at all, immediately disavowing what had become the keystone of their campaign.
As a result of this volte face, Johnson and Gove have limited credibility even though they won the referendum. They look like the charlatans they are, caught like rabbits in the headlight shone on them by their unexpected victory. The grim spectre of the long-serving interior minister Theresa May stepping into the Tory breach now presents itself as a real possibility. May, too, has positioned herself for the leadership by carefully avoiding political responsibility – keeping a low-profile throughout the referendum campaign.
If the right is incapable of offering responsible political leadership, the position of the Labour Party is even worse: it has entered a deep, possibly terminal, crisis. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong opponent of the EU, prioritised peace within the parliamentary party over his principles. In so doing, he passed up the opportunity to mobilise the population behind a progressive post-EU vision, as well as deepening the alienation of many traditional Labour voters. The Labour Party therefore set itself even more severely at odds with its traditional base, with 37% of Labour supporters opting for Leave. Having already lost Scotland to the SNP, Labour now faces losing much of its remaining electoral strength in Wales and the North of England to abstention and to UKIP.
With the possibility of a snap general election, the parliamentary party is in meltdown. Incredibly, the same Blairite MPs who pressured Corbyn into his disastrous backing of Remain are now demanding his resignation, making a vote of no confidence and resigning from the shadow cabinet. They apparently believe that a revolt against identikit, out-of-touch elites would have been forestalled by Corbyn more energetically backing those elites. Corbyn is hoping that his popularity among the left-leaning party membership will be enough to save his leadership, but there is little reason to think that the left can save the party either.
This is not least because virtually every self-described leftist – even those who openly recognised the EU’s undemocratic nature and brutal record in southern Europe – supported Remain. Fundamentally, leftists doubted their capacity to lead the British public towards a progressive Brexit. Instead, they warned, Boris Johnson would sweep to power and dismantle what was left of social democracy – apparently with popular consent. They backed continued EU membership to maintain policies and institutions that they feared the population would not support in a fully democratic system.
This ‘strategy’ of left-defeatism became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lacking any real belief in the EU, the left was unable to offer a positive vision of EU membership and fell back on elite-led scare tactics. The issues of democracy and self-determination were given up to the political right, as was leadership on both sides of the debate, allowing conservatives to define the debate over the future. Ducking the issue of principle in the name of strategic nous, the vote was lost anyway, creating the outcome the left had feared all along: Brexit, led by the right.
After the vote, this defeatist orientation of the left has resulted in a social media spasm of vitriol directed against the old, the poor and the uneducated. Having convinced themselves that Brexit could only mean ‘Prime Minister Boris’ and a reign of xenophobia on our ‘rainy, fascist island’, leftists can only despair, blasting 17.4 million people as ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’, talking of emigrating, and broadcasting their shame, with one columnist even apologising to the world on Britain’s behalf. Gordon Brown’s infamous denunciation of a Labour voter concerned about immigration as a ‘bigoted woman’ has now been taken up as the cry of ‘radical’ youth. The activist left has essentially declared that they do not recognise Brexit voters as their own people. The left could not be more distant from the people it purports to represent.
Indeed, much of the left now seems to want to dissolve the people and elect another. The public sphere is awash with suggestions of how to overturn the referendum result, from a petition to re-run the poll (four million signatures and counting), to requests for Sadiq Khan to declare pro-Remain London an independent EU city-state, to MPs calling for parliament to ignore the result. The left, which historically fought to enfranchise the masses, now stands as the most vocal opponent of popular sovereignty. Given the apparent unwillingness of the Brexit right to pursue their victory with much vigour, the frustration of the majority decision in the referendum has to be counted as a real possibility.
If the majority of the political left is seen to support using legal and constitutional mechanisms to evade the referendum result, it will leave many places across the UK in a dangerous vacuum of political cynicism and despair. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of such a betrayal.
Several commentators, such as reluctant Remainer Paul Mason, have rightly called for the left to get over its defeat, stop branding people idiots and racists, and struggle to take Brexit in a progressive direction, and away from the Eurosceptic chancers. But nobody should underestimate the difficulty this presents. The political bankruptcy of the political class and its parties is the consequence of the bankruptcy of its political traditions. Mason argues that the root cause of the referendum result is that ‘neoliberalism is broken’. He is right about neoliberalism, but he avoids telling the whole story. The root cause of the referendum result is that social democracy is broken too, and has been for a long time. Some will nevertheless see Brexit as providing an opportunity to revive a protectionist state socialism, along the lines of Bernie Sanders electoral insurgency, perhaps through a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Some will doubt that social democracy can or should be revived and seek a more directly internationalist outlook.
Those debates lie ahead, but all democrats will have to unite to ensure that the will of the people expressed in the referendum is respected and not frustrated by liberal elitists. By pursuing these objectives, we might begin to do something to fill the vacuum of political leadership exposed by the Brexit vote.