Brexit aftermath

UK crisis shows leaders' 'disconnect with people'

An electronic billboard advertisement in London encouraging Britons to vote ahead of last week's referendum on the European Union. Britain's political system now faces months, if not years, of instability following the vote to leave the bloc.
An electronic billboard advertisement in London encouraging Britons to vote ahead of last week's referendum on the European Union. Britain's political system now faces months, if not years, of instability following the vote to leave the bloc.PHOTO: REUTERS

Many democracies face a similar issue, making Britain's problems the concern of politicians elsewhere: Analysts

LONDON • Last Thursday's Brexit vote cast a bright light on the degree to which the effects of globalisation and immigration, along with decades of over-promises and under-delivery by political leaders, have undermined the ability of those officials to lead.

The seeds of what has brought Britain to this moment exist elsewhere, which makes this country's problems the concern of leaders elsewhere. In Belgium and Brazil, democracies have faced crises of legitimacy; in Spain and France, elected leaders have been hobbled by their own unpopularity; even in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces no threat from the opposition, his government has demonstrated a consistent inability to deliver prosperity.

Dr Anthony King, a professor of politics at the University of Essex, said the underlying factor is that many people no longer believe that, however imperfect things are economically, they will keep getting better. In the face of that change in public attitudes, he said, much of the political class "is behaving the way it used to behave, the old arguments, the old fights, the adversarialism".

That has created what he called "the palpable disconnection" between political leaders and ordinary people. "That is true across much of the democratic world," he added. "How do you put that right?"

Britain's political system faces months, if not years, of instability. Mr David Cameron originally recommended that a new prime minister be in place by early October. On Monday, the party committee overseeing the rules for the selection of a new Conservative Party leader to succeed Mr Cameron accelerated that timetable, calling for a decision to be made by Sept 2.

Mr Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and the leading voice in the campaign to leave the European Union (EU), is seen as the favourite to succeed Mr Cameron. But he is a controversial figure and faces resistance inside the party.

The selection of a new prime minister will probably be followed by an early election - almost four years ahead of the next scheduled election - because the next prime minister will need a public endorsement as the process of negotiating a withdrawal from the EU begins.

For the Conservative Party, the prospect of an election as soon as possible is attractive because of the chaos within Labour and the prospect of enlarging the narrow majority won in May 2010.

Today, Labour is in a vicious civil war, split between its grassroots membership and the party's elected leadership in Parliament. Labour's future as a viable and effective opposition party is under threat at a time when the country most needs one.

But the reality is that neither party has a particularly stable coalition.

Dr Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, argued that as cultural issues - here symbolised by immigration - have risen to the fore, they have put pressure on a party system long organised over economic differences of more or less reliance on free markets rather than government's hand.

Labour saw many of its strong areas outside London vote strongly in favour of leaving the EU. Meanwhile, Mr Cameron was relying on the votes of Labour districts in London to help prevent that.

"In other words," Dr Bale said, "there's possibly a mismatch between the party system we have and the party system we need".

But he added that history and institutional inertia mean that there is no prospect of any realignment. It will be left to the leaders of the next government to pick up the pieces after last Thursday's vote.

But those who led the Leave campaign to break with Europe and who are likely to lead the government by this autumn will be challenged to live up to the promises they made in the weeks before the referendum.

They have already backed away from some of the more questionable assertions of the campaign. To some outside observers, that is a recipe for more voter disappointment and a further decline in confidence in leaders and institutions.

As Dr Bale put it: "The time seems right for another betrayal."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'UK crisis shows leaders' 'disconnect with people''. Print Edition | Subscribe