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Brexit:Theaftermath - News analysis

Political paralysis takes hold in Britain

At a critical juncture in the country's history, there is nobody to take charge and lead

Jonathan Eyal One could criticise the British for many things, but not for the stability of their political system, which routinely produced strong, decisive government.

No longer, for nobody seems to be in charge of Britain now. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, yet his replacement won't emerge for months, while the nation's currency and stock markets tumble. Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been rejected by most of his MPs, but he refuses to go. Meanwhile, Britain's famed Parliament now resembles a mediaeval torture chamber in which top politicians either stab or get stabbed, while lesser politicians just get dismembered.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the referendum which resulted in Britain's departure from the European Union has unleashed a political revolution not experienced by the island state for at least a century. It is a typical, British-style revolution in which little blood flows and the monarchy, of course, remains untouched. But it's a revolution nevertheless, and one which leads into the unknown.

The EU referendum divided the nation between those wishing to remain in the EU and those wanting out. The vote also divided the English from the Scots, towns from the countryside and the young from the old. But the reality is that the EU referendum was only an attempt to paper over longstanding divisions within both the Conservative and Labour parties and, instead of doing that, it tore apart Britain's post-war political settlement.

Both of Britain's historic parties ultimately failed to reach a consensus on what Britain's role in Europe should be. The Conservatives, who brought Britain into Europe in 1973, initially hoped that EU membership would protect Britain's free markets, then under threat from socialism. And for precisely these reasons, Labour initially opposed the EU.


Among those who are vying to be Britain's next prime minister is Home Secretary Theresa May. PHOTO: REUTERS

During the 1980s, however, the parties swopped roles: The Conservatives began to see the EU as a straitjacket on Britain's growing confidence and market economy, while Labour hailed the EU as the only protection trade unions had from Conservative capitalist reforms.

Yet as the new century dawned, one development made Europe toxic to everyone: mass migration, which brought an estimated 3.5 million EU citizens to Britain. For the Conservatives, hatred of the EU which made it impossible to control Britain's borders became an irrational obsession. And for Labour, the EU became a topic best avoided.

The economic case for EU migration was clear, but it was never articulated by the London-based elite. The result was that the left-behind voters, those marginalised by the EU, simply ignored both parties and voted to leave the Union. It was a disaster in the making for decades, but one which neither the Conservatives nor Labour foresaw.

Britain's political parties not only failed to provide leadership to the nation; they also failed to protect themselves from being hollowed out from within. The result is that, at precisely at this critical juncture in Britain's history, there is nobody to take charge.

The painful slap which Britain's electorate has just delivered comes on top of a historic decline for both big parties. As late as the 1990s, between 75 per cent and 85 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative. But in the last two elections only 66 per cent supported the two giants of British politics; the last time either enjoyed a solid overall majority in Parliament was in 2001.

The parties have responded to their decline with a variety of gimmicks borrowed from American political life. It currently requires not more than £3 (S$5.30) and about five minutes to join the Labour Party online, for instance, and membership gives one the chance to select the party's leader.

But instead of making parties more inclusive, it made them more freakish, since those who bothered to join were less and less representative of the broad electorate. That's why someone like Mr Corbyn, a bearded radical who seldom leaves the comfort of his expensive London home and is far more interested in the fate of left-wing revolutions in Latin America than the plight of workers in industrial north England, still leads Labour despite the fact that his own MPs won't even talk to him.

And this is also why someone like former London mayor Boris Johnson, a man who has never been a Cabinet minister and has never held one position for more than a few weeks, could be regarded as a senior politician and even a future prime minister.

Britain's political parties not only failed to provide leadership to the nation; they also failed to protect themselves from being hollowed out from within.

The result is that, at precisely at this critical juncture in Britain's history, there is nobody to take charge. Those who orchestrated Britain's rejection of the EU have disappeared from public view, fearing that they may be called to account for the lies they peddled during their campaign.

Meanwhile, the biggest controversy in London is not about the country's future but, rather, about the largely irrelevant technical detail on when Britain should formally notify the rest of Europe of its intention to leave.

Just about the only consolation is that, as matters currently stand, Britain's next prime minister is likely to be Mrs Theresa May, an experienced and sensible politician. If she takes over, the positions of both head of state and head of the central government, as well as the leadership of both Scotland and Northern Ireland, will all be occupied by women.

After decades of political mismanagement by mostly men, that is a good idea.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Political paralysis takes hold in Britain'. Print Edition | Subscribe