Political centre has to regain traction

A former British premier urges the political centre to regain the trust of voters, while two writers look for the silver lining in the cloud

A demonstrator draped in the EU flag in London protesting last Saturday against the outcome of the referendum.
A demonstrator draped in the EU flag in London protesting last Saturday against the outcome of the referendum. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • The decision of British voters in last Thursday's referendum to leave the European Union will have vast consequences for Britain, for Europe and for the world. For a day, the British people were the government and, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, they took the decision to go.

I was a British prime minister who believed completely that Britain's future lay in Europe. I was the prime minister responsible for legislating substantial self-rule in Scotland so that it would remain part of the United Kingdom. I negotiated the Good Friday Agreement so that Northern Ireland could be at peace within Britain. Because the result of the referendum has put so much of this at risk, last Friday became a day of great personal, as well as political, sadness.

The immediate impact of the Brexit vote is economic. The fallout has been as swift as it was predictable. At one point last Friday, the pound hit a 30-year low against the dollar, and a leading British stock index had dropped more than 8 per cent. The nation's credit rating is under threat.

The lasting effect, however, might be political, and with global implications. If the economic shocks continue, then the British experiment will serve as a warning. But if they abate, then populist movements in other countries will gain momentum.

How did this happen? The right in British politics found an issue that's causing palpitations in the body politic the world over: immigration. Part of the Conservative Party, allied with the far-right UK Independence Party, took this issue and focused the campaign to leave Europe on it. This strategy could not have succeeded, though, without finding common cause with a significant segment of Labour voters.

These supporters did not get a clear message from their own party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn was lukewarm about remaining in the union. They were drawn by the Leavers' promise that Brexit would bring an end to the perceived immigration problems. And, worried about their flatlining incomes and cuts in public spending, they saw this vote as an opportunity to register an anti-government protest.

A demonstrator draped in the EU flag in London protesting last Saturday against the outcome of the referendum.
A demonstrator draped in the EU flag in London protesting last Saturday against the outcome of the referendum. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The strains within Britain that led to this referendum result are universal, at least in the West. Insurgent movements of left and right, posing as standard-bearers of a popular revolt against the political establishment, can spread and grow at scale and speed. Today's polarised and fragmented news coverage only encourages such insurgencies - an effect magnified many times by the social media revolution.

It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties. What wasn't clear was whether they could take over a country like Britain. Now we know they can.

Those in the political centre were demonised as out-of-touch elites, as though the people leading the insurgency were ordinary folks - which, in the case of the Brexit campaign, is a laughable proposition. The campaign made the word "expert" virtually a term of abuse, and when experts warned of the economic harm that would follow Brexit, they were castigated as "scaremongers".

Immigrants were described as a bunch of scroungers coming to grab Britons' jobs and benefits when, in reality, the recent migrants from Eastern Europe contribute far more in taxes than they take in welfare payments. And besides, immigration to Britain from outside the EU will not be affected by the referendum decision.

The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent. Instead, we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right. The right attacks immigrants while the left rails at bankers, but the spirit of insurgency, the venting of anger at those in power and the addiction to simple, demagogic answers to complex problems are the same for both extremes. Underlying it all is a shared hostility to globalisation.

Britain and Europe now face a protracted period of economic and political uncertainty, as the British government tries to negotiate a future outside the single market where half of Britain's goods and services are traded. These new arrangements - to be clear about the scale of the challenge - must be negotiated with all the other 27 countries, their individual Parliaments and the European Parliament. Some governments might be cooperative; others won't want to make leaving easy for Britain, in order to discourage similar movements.

Britain is a strong country, with a resilient people and energy and creativity in abundance. I don't doubt Britons' capacity to come through, whatever the cost. But the stress on the UK is already apparent.

Voters in Scotland chose by a large margin to remain in Europe, with the result that there are renewed calls for another referendum on Scottish independence. Northern Ireland has benefited from virtually open borders with the Republic of Ireland. That freedom is at risk because the North's border with the South now becomes the EU's border, a potential threat to the Northern Ireland peace process.

If the people - usually a repository of common sense and practicality - do something that appears neither sensible nor practical, then it forces a period of long and hard reflection. My own politics is waking to this new political landscape. The same dangerous impulses are visible, too, in American politics, but the challenges of globalisation cannot be met by isolationism or shutting borders.

The centre must regain its political traction, rediscover its capacity to analyse the problems we all face and find solutions that rise above the populist anger. If we do not succeed in beating back the far left and far right before they take the nations of Europe on this reckless experiment, it will end the way such rash action always does in history: at best, in disillusion; at worst, in rancorous division. The centre must hold.


•Tony Blair was the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline Political centre has to regain traction. Subscribe