Sometimes, amid the current chaos of UK politics, it’s worth taking a deep breath and stepping back a little, to contemplate the bizarre outlines of the situation we now face. Over the next two months, an electorate made up of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons, plus the aged and dwindling membership of the Conservative and Unionist Party, will choose the next man or woman to be our Prime Minister. Of the 11 candidates to have declared themselves so far, most have declared themselves willing, “if necessary”, to lead the country into a no-deal exit from the European Union.
All of them probably know, at some level, that a no-deal Brexit is not in the UK’s best interests. Yet they continue to take this damaging position, mainly because their overwhelming obsession and priority is the narrowly defined game of current right-wing politics, which dictates that they must seek to fend off the recent challenge from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – which advocates a hard Brexit, and won 31.6 per cent of the vote in last week’s European Parliament elections – by mimicking its hard-line attitude to the EU. As a result, it seems likely that the UK’s next Prime Minister will be someone who, out of conviction or ambition, not only supports a no-deal Brexit, but is also willing, across the British media, to keep repeating the line – at best debatable, and at worst downright false – that no-deal Brexit, with all the pain in it will bring in its wake, is the only way of “honouring the 2016 referendum result”, and restoring the faith of the people in British democracy.
The facts, of course, tell a rather different story. The constituency who voted for hard Brexit parties last Thursday constituted just a third of the voters, on a low turnout of under 40 per cent. The number voting for clearly anti-Brexit parties was larger, at around 40 per cent, and those voting Conservative and Labour were difficult to categorise at all. There is, in other words, no huge wave of popular support for “no deal”; at best, it represents the favoured view of a substantial and noisy minority with little support among the young, and is certainly not backed by any coherent policy programme for a post-no-deal Britain.
Such is the state of cognitive dissonance inflicted on Britain’s political establishment by the Brexit debacle, though, that most debate and commentary around the Tory leadership campaign seems to take it as read that candidates have no option but to pander to the ‘no deal’ group, and to abandon the Tories’ traditional aspiration to appeal to the “centre ground” of British politics. Even Margaret Thatcher, at the head of her neoliberal ideological revolution, was always careful to proceed with caution, and to bring middle England along with her; yet now, most Tories seem determined to act not only as if the 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU did not exist, but also as if those moderate Leavers who would have preferred a deal should likewise, if necessary, be dumped in the dustbin of history. Small wonder that some people, noting the strange and growing ascendancy of the extreme “no deal” position in our public debate, have talked about a very British kind of coup, driven by a handful of wealthy and influential no-deal enthusiasts in the media and elsewhere; and small wonder that faced by the Tories’ chaotic handling of Brexit, and absolute failure to come to terms with the reality of the deal on offer, British voters last week fled either to the “real no-dealers” of the Brexit Party, or to those who would cancel Brexit altogether – leaving the Tories with a pitiful 9.1 per cent of the vote.
The Tory breakdown is mirrored, of course, by equal chaos on the Labour side, where the party – divided to the point of open warfare – haemorrhaged support in last week’s vote, mainly to the strong Remain position of the Liberal Democrats. In a political and media system built entirely around the presumption of two strong leading parties effectively representing most interests in the nation, and acting as effective and credible gatekeepers to political power, the current meltdown has produced some very strange reactions, as Westminster insiders struggle to work out whose views now matter, and whose can be safely ignored.
And one notable victim of this widespread attack of cognitive dissonance is, of course, the SNP, whose outstanding performance in last Thursday’s vote – scoring a higher level of support among its available electorate than any other political party in the EU, at almost 38 per cent, and outperforming the Tories and Labour in Scotland by three-to-one and four-to-one respectively – barely seems to have registered on the UK political seismometer at all. Michael Gove bizarrely referred to the result as showing there was no further demand for Scottish independence, while others tried to write the SNP off as a single-issue campaign; the idea seems to be that the SNP is either just another right-wing nationalist party, or a party that peaked in 2014 and is now in decline, or both.
Those who are interested in real political analysis, though, would do well to make a more sober appraisal of the SNP’s success. The party has its problems, of course; but its ability to remain Scotland’s largest political force by such a decisive margin reflects the observable fact, across the EU, that a measure of more-or-less competent social democracy, however imperfect, always represents by far the best bulwark against both reactionary right-wing populism, and the kind of collapse of the centre ground we are now seeing in some European countries. For Labour, the message is that it must unite around a credible social-democratic programme for the 21st century, or fade into history; for the Tories, the message is that they must leave the Brexit extremists to Nigel Farage, tack back towards the certain ground, or risk the same fate. And the fact that they will not hear those messages, coming as they do from outside their ever-narrower Westminster world, is itself a measure of the depth of their crisis; and of the growing unfitness of both parties to govern a union of nations they no longer care to understand.