Amid the Brexit tumult, the UK’s two-party system is shattering, but there’s usually a price to pay for the loss of such stability as shown by the government debt-to-GDP ratio of several countries in Europe, writes Bill Jamieson.
Amid three years of fractious division and angry protest over the blighted pathway to EU withdrawal, a great irony has unfolded. For whether we opt for full withdrawal, withdrawal with a deal, or remain and reform, our turbulent politics are becoming more, not less European.
After the chaotic scenes at Westminster on Monday with placard-waving scuffles around the Speaker’s chair and the singing of The Red Flag and Scots Wha Hae, Westminster politics may now fairly claim to have no match. But beneath this mayhem are signs of an emerging new order and a breaking free from Westminster’s familiar past.
The traditional two-party system that has marked British politics for more than a century – that metronomic swing of the pendulum between left and right, Gladstone and Disraeli, Baldwin and McDonald, Wilson and Heath – is giving way to something altogether more kaleidoscopic: not just a two-way axis but a six-way split between left and right, nationalist and unionist, Leave and Remain.
The Commons is already comprised of multiple parties (seven all told, not including independents), the prospect of unlikely coalitions, an immobilised Prime Minister, gridlock – if not outright suspension – and a swifter change of administrations.
The next election (when it comes) will be the fourth since 2010 – assuming the Prime Minister, now effectively under political house arrest, can ever call one.
How we used to laugh at Italy. Did we not gasp at turbulent Greece? And wonder at how Belgium got by during 19 months without a government?
But today we, too, are moving into a Euro-world of multi-polar politics. The corrosion of the two-party system – once held aloft to the world as a beacon of order and stability – proceeds apace. Can we imagine that the old order will reassert itself?
To me, this change towards a more continental political dynamic looks permanent.
Of course, we are a long way from the tumultuous politics of Italy where governments between 1945 and 1992 lasted on average eight months. This year a populist government comprising the most bizarre bedfellows – the right-wing League led by Matteo Salvini and the anti-establishment Five Star movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo – collapsed after 15 months.
Salvini pulled the plug on the coalition and looked set to be PM, but an unlikely alliance sprang up between Five Star and the centre-left Democratic Party – previously at each other’s throats. Giuseppe Conte is the prime minister for now.
Governments come and go in a complex, ever-changing mosaic of political parties and supporting interests. In this tumult, two factors appear to keep the system going: extensive patronage with consummate horse-trading – the new Italian coalition has 400 jobs to fill and the prospect of advancement can lure in the most intractable of opponents.
The other is ever higher spending and recourse to ballooning levels of debt. Italian government debt to GDP stands at 132 per cent, a level that brings the European Commission out in boils. The new coalition says it will seek to change the EU Stability Pact and austerity measures. Good luck with that.
Greece has more than 40 parties including National Hope, Another Path, Greek Solution, Communists (five variants), Golden Dawn, Course of Freedom, Greens, Union of Centrists, MeRa25 (general secretary: Yanis Varoufakis) and a group stirringly called I Don’t Pay. However, only six parties got more than three per cent of the vote in the July election.
The country has moved (for now) to a centre-right New Democracy government following the defeat of Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza after a period of ferocious austerity and economic mayhem. The new government continues to be heavily constrained by the 2015 bail-out agreement. Debt to GDP ratio is 181 per cent.
Belgium, with 32 political parties, has survived a long period with no effective government at all, finally broken after 542 days of negotiations. It currently has a caretaker administration under Charles Michel with limited powers only. Debt to GDP ratio: 102 per cent.
Spain has struggled to hold itself together in the face of a populist vote for an independent Catalonia.
Its prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Workers Party, took over following a vote of no confidence in Mariano Rajoy. Spanish debt to GDP: 97.1 per cent.
How colourful it all is, and how mesmerising. Euro-scepticism in several EU countries including France and Germany is now rife and on the rise. Yet it is not hard to see how many voters, fearing domestic instability, look to the EU for protection and safety from domestic extremes – even though the Commission’s economic strictures have proved deeply unpopular.
As for the UK, whether we stay in or leave, the two-party system is in its death throes and a new dynamic, similar to those evident across the continent, looks to be the new ‘order’.