Is Brexit the new political axis of Britain?

It was the biggest political event in living memory. It shakes the very political foundations of the country. And it will come to shape our culture, foreign policy, and prosperity. The referendum last year has an importance unmatched by any other event on the British political scene. In the 2014 Scottish Referendum demands for independence – long-harboured, passionately aroused – were ultimately was defeated by the economic and social rationale of union, to lie dormant for another generation. The 2015 general election, where Labour lost what they believed could be a tight race, the Lib Dems collapsed, UKIP failed to advance, the SNP emerged as a new force, and the Conservatives stood bruised but standing from 5 years of coalition government, was one of the most exciting (if tiresome) contests since 1997, yet still soon receded into memory. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party 4 months later emerged as the more important development of the year, heralding the wasting away of the once healthy Labour corpus to the attenuated figure that lies before us now.

Yet whilst these have all become inalienable parts of the political landscape, each demanding its own attention and providing its own thorny issues, none dominate the political scene like the EU Referendum of 2016. Unlike these other events, nothing polarises voters in as divisive a fashion. It dominates the proceedings of Cabinet, the time of the Civil Service, and debates in Parliament. Our airwaves grow thick with speculation and discussion, our public fora rowdy over it, our box sets filled with the latest gossip. If the atmosphere grows heated with all the hot air spilled over it still, then it’s perhaps balanced by the chilliness that pervades formerly cordial relationships across the UK. 9 months on and it continues to hog headlines, never absent from the inside pages. Its battles are relived and refought on fields still fresh with recent wounds, with the release of every growth forecast and every immigration swing. It’s not just an economic argument, technical and limited in scope, whose intricacies most of us don’t have the time to investigate. It reveals a cultural divide: those of us worried for our futures, for the future of our culture, for our liberties and sovereignty; and then those of us who aren’t nearly so concerned.

The reason it remains so divisive after so long a period is that it touches on a real political divide in this country. Our politics is dominated by parties formed from the events of at least century ago. They have evolved, but haven’t kept up with the rapid social change we’ve undergone – the fact that only 29% of MPs are women is evidence enough. Our political issues, those that we feel most passionately about and that most likely determine how we vote, have changed as well. The parties fight along a left-right 2D spectrum, whereas most of us subscribe to a good chunk of both sides of the divide, in its classical definition. Taking the last general election; the campaigns revolved around economic issues and competency. The Conservative’s mantra was their “Long-term Economic Plan”, whilst Labour’s was a “Better Plan for a Better Future”.  But in reality, as the recent referendums show, we are holding our cultural and moral politics as increasingly important. This isn’t to say economic competency is no longer important, just that it now shares the stage with culture and values, forming an uneasy double act. The Conservative’s election in 2010 was on the back of their switch to a socially liberal platform. The SNP’s was an emotional cry for Scottish culture. And the Leave campaign, the focus of this article, won by leaving the economics to Remain, and focusing solely on the cultural argument.

Now a quick aside must be made to explain what’s the “culture” and “values” that I am referring to. By this I don’t so much refer to what we watch, read, and listen to – though they are somewhat reflective of our “values” – but what we hold deeply as most important. This could be an attachment to elements of our culture and way of life. It could be helping those in need. It could be the principle of fairness or equality. It’s what you’ll get riled up at if someone seriously challenges you on it, and a maxim for your life. It is above monetary value; for instance, if I offered to give you money for your child, your wife, or your faith, you’d be furious. However, if I offered you an equal amount never to be able to eat a yorkshire pudding again, or listen to Adele, you’d probably take me up on the offer.

The arguments have lasted so long, become so heated surrounding membership of the EU precisely because of how it touches on cultural sensitivities, and how it has become embroiled as, to some, a threat to their culture. The EU stands for so many different things to different people. It sees itself as a harbinger of peace and defender of human rights. In Romania it is seen as a bulwark against political corruption. In Germany as a means to protect Europe from external and internal threats. Yet at the same time, more negative views have become widespread. In Greece it’s equated with chastening austerity measures, in Russia as a strategic threat, and in Britain it has been portrayed as the fifth horseman by some; consistently identified for the past four decades since our ascension as limiting our sovereignty, as clogging our industry by red tape, and as subsuming our culture to a pan-European conglomerate. You’ll note that these are not primarily economic. They are diverse, covering all aspects of how Britain imagines itself – forward-looking, industrious, and somewhat unique in Europe – cultural and economic. Tabloids have presented the EU as the very antithesis of these mentioned values, and have immeasurably poisoned public opinion against it.

Yet popular Euroscepticism – not elite – was slow to develop. UKIP was formed in 1993, over 20 years before the EU referendum. It’s first real electoral success came in winning the 2014 EU election with over a quarter of the vote. However, two events have caused the growth of eurosceptic opinion to its current level. Firstly the Great Recession in 2007/8 and its aftermath in the EU debt crisis. This directly provided fodder for accusations of elite indifference. The rigidly enforced rules for Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland drew much ire for the effects it had, and still has, on the lives of those living in those countries. It was also a clear example to Eurosceptics of the supposed imperial ambitions of the EU. The EU seemed to overstep its competence into matters of national control. It was resented for how it acted as -it seemed to those on the receiving end – a vengeful institution. The second, and perhaps most damaging, accusation it provided evidence for was that the EU was incompetent. Unemployment in Greece, Spain, and Italy are all still in double digits, and is much higher amongst young people. All the while, statistics of economic growth released by statistics offices, stock market records announced proudly by reviled bankers, and daunting salaries to executives quietly offered once more by corporations have eroded trust in those in power, and tarnished the already fairly blackened reputation of these institutions.These elites, as a class, partaking in and having close connection with these industries, by association sully their reputation. And its effects aren’t limited to the continent. Britain too suffered the effects of these twin crises, though obviously we were insulated somewhat from the EU debt crisis. Whilst some communities have recovered quickly in Britain – take Cambridge or London, who voted strongly to remain – others, such as Wales and the North East have recovered far more slowly, or not at all. Taking the house price rise as a metric for regional recovery, even in just the past year Yorkshire house prices rose 4.7%, compared with 13.2% for the East of England. It’s clear that certain regions, and certain sections of society, have a relatively confident economic outlook, whereas many feel under financial strain. Real wages haven’t risen for more than a decade, inflation rising again, and consumer debt is increasing.

Simultaneously with, and to an extent because of, economic damage, cultural fears have arisen across the UK. Radical Islam and immigration have been regularly touted by populist politicians, who appeal most strongly to those citizens feeling ignored. Fears of radical Islam really started before 2007, having been incensed by the rare and notorious large-scale terrorist attacks of the 2000s. Of course, 9/11 stands foremost amongst those, yet Britain endured also its own, with the 7/7 bombings. It has become the “anarchism” that plagued the late 19th century, the “socialism” that haunted our 20th century history, or even the “witchcraft” that perturbed our predecessors in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is painted as a force that seeks to violently overthrow and destroy our “civilisation”, as scaremongers delight in proposing. Its tiny adherence, its lack of popular support even in most of the Middle East, and the emptiness of most of its threats have little bearing for these commentators. It does, however, have a shock factor that can inflate the threat out of all proportion. The brief surge of the BNP in the 2009 EU elections is a testament to the potency of this kind of threat.

The debate surrounding radical Islam has pervaded the debate on immigration – again, both drawing from it, and contributing to it in a symbiotic relationship. The antipathy felt to this one particular foreign culture has done much harm to all. It is easier to justify measures and feelings against one culture when there are obvious parallels to draw on concerning Islam. They have become punching backs to those communities, with enormous targets painted on them by politicians seeking to exploit them for electoral success. Nothing could be easier than blaming immigration for economic hardships that many now face, for the mounting concerns surrounding the NHS, or declining prospects for young people. And mirrored on the cultural aspect, fears of radical Islam convince many that British culture is under threat, that Muslims don’t support our political system, want to abolish our way of living, and that they threaten our values. When immigration is from those not of our culture (ie. almost all of it) then they intertwine for double the potency. This has become one of the most powerfully felt sentiments in British politics, and many (though obviously not all) felt at the very least one of these on the 23rd of June.

The second of the key events contributing to widespread Euroscepticism is the Syrian refugee crisis. This succinctly linked these two fears together. Beginning in 2015, hundreds of thousands fled from the horrors of war in Syria to the safety and security of Europe. Their numbers overwhelmed the response offered by the Balkan EU states, and the Schengen area allowed migrants to travel freely within the EU once they had arrived. The EU’s response itself was muddled and chaotic – the Eastern European Slavic countries taking a much harder stance against collective action to resolve the crisis, or indeed accepting any quota of migrants than Germany in paticular. This led to political deadlock that only worsened the situation on the ground and further discredited the Union. Germany’s acceptance of as many migrants as arrived was most contentious of all. The Chancellor Angela Merkel, being the leading politician in the EU, attempted to throw the institution’s weight behind her proposals for accepting those having already arrived and instituting a hard external border. This linked in the minds of British voters this munificent policy with the EU, much as it had already been by the location of the crisis. The sheer volume of refugees, mostly young men, mostly Muslim, was seized upon by the alt-right as an example of a threat to our culture. 1.5 million refugees arrived in the past year, and when concentrated in countries like Germany, who took in 800,000 in 2015, it shocked many here and abroad. They made predictions we would become a Muslim majority country. Much like a “non-Newtonian” liquid, such as custard or cornflour and water, cultures change and flow over long periods of time, but with a big enough shock become hard and brittle. Just such a shock caused just such a reaction all across Europe, even here in Britain, where we accepted few migrants. Now identified with EU those who already feared this surge in migration channeled their ire in addition to the EU.

It’s easy to make someone hold an attitude or opinion, so vociferously that they will defend and expound it even in the face of the most widely-arrayed opposition. All you have to do is publicly challenge, deride, and humiliate someone and their opinions. As you can imagine, once that happens, it is not an experience anyone could forget, and rarely forget. And that is the overwhelming response that came from both campaigns in the referendum, to humiliate and denigrate the other side. When people started shouting at each other, their opinions hardened until they set. When some on the Remain campaign pointed out how parts of the Leave campaign utilised material bordering on racism people felt aggrieved to publicly labeled i as such. This is irrespective of whether they did or not – no one ever thinks that they themselves are racist, and so they felt aggrieved either way. Therefore it only reinforced these opinions and soured the debate. For voters, this will have fired opinions that remained even after the vote took place, further re-enforcing the importance of the EU to our current political situation.

These trends coincide with growing inequality and a hardening of class divides, largely caused by the slow economic growth. As people become more and more educated – with over 50% of school leavers going to university – their expectations rise commensurately. Expectations for a house, a good job, for a place amongst the community perhaps. However, when people increasingly fail to achieve these aspirations, inevitably they turn for reasons why. Migration, refugees, the EU have all become scapegoats for the problems that the coming generations face – lack of employment primarily, but also longer working hours, less secure jobs, worse-paying jobs, and rising house prices. Seeing as the underlying trends that in reality cause these problems aren’t going to be rectified and ameliorated in the foreseeable future, and neither do we seem to have widely recognised these far more complex issues yet, the same issues that drove the Brexit vote, and that continues to make it such an important issue now, will retain their relevance. The same results, same parties, and same politicians will profit.

These sentiments were channeled, in particular, throughout the EU referendum campaign by Leave politicians. After the campaign, this rhetoric has continued, spurred on by the election of Donald Trump and wrangling concerning the triggering of Article 50. The EU now touches on the biggest questions in British politics: Between those who feel confident economically and open culturally, against those who feel under threat on both accounts. The EU has come to epitomise the divide. Whether or not it fulfills the liberal ideals that are painted on it I offer no comment here. However, continued membership of the EU, or at the very least the single market, has become more than just the battlefield over which our politics is fought. It is the whole war, the motivation, and part of the casus belli. Whilst not every issue that we face now, nor in the future, may directly relate to Brexit, most will become related to it in the course of debating it.

Yet for all the importance of the issue – though, it must be noted, it is not the sole challenge that lies before us – the UK’s political scene remains broadly the same. Whilst Labour has fallen in polling from ~30% to ~25%, and the Conservatives rising equivalently to ~40%, the broad outlines of the parties remain. Only the Lib Dems have radically altered their platform to accommodate this momentous occasion, becoming the party of ‘Remain’. For most other parties the referendum presents just another political landmine to avoid treading on (which Labour, adopting Stalinist tactics, drives their forces over in human waves, managing to trigger every single one). For an issue that now characterises our politics, and whose importance is genuinely greater than any other, why has there been this political hiatus?

Each of the parties are limited for their own reasons. Labour’s incompetent and contradictory leadership has caused it to absent itself from the entire debate. They fail to confront the important problems raised by Brexit, as their base is torn between the socially liberal middle class (who support remaining) and those described above (in favour of Brexit). Jeremy Corbyn is a politician from the 1970s, whose political understanding is rooted there. This can be inferred some of his policy proposals, such as his suggestion during his leadership campaign to reopen the coal mines. Meanwhile, the Conservative government’s only worry is that their hardline MPs force such a “hard” Brexit that the party suffers at the ballot box. They have free reign to continue with their policies as before, and feel no compunction to rock the boat of their high approval ratings and fragile Parliamentary majority.  The two parties who already are occupying this axis, the Lib Dems and UKIP, are both hampered by their own circumstances. The Lib Dems, still reeling from their rout in 2015, and no longer the anti-establishment party of the angry (a mantle taken up by UKIP), have yet to find its voice in the wake of the vote. They have achieved a notable success in winning the Richmond Park by-election, but they have a long struggle ahead of them. UKIP also are failing to connect with voters. Whilst both parties have leaders that have failed to connect, the organisation and coherency of the Lib Dems promises a greater future for the party than UKIPs. Their ground game, canvassing, leafleting, noting, calling, visiting, were very poor in their recent Copeland by-election defeat. This, alongside their disastrous leader. Nutall is perhaps the exception to the rule that populist politicians can say what they want. The blatant and insulting lies he made up has cemented him as a figure of absurdity and ridicule that will not be easily shifted, if at all.

It has been written that the affairs of the great powers shape those in their orbit and feeling its gravitational pull. It moulds and fashions their politics by presenting two alternatives that are sufficiently disparate that factions form. Between their most important trading partners, their political allies, and their ideological friends, factional rifts grow between those seeking the contrasting diplomatic visions, until politics is stretched to breaking point. The history of the Italian city-states is littered with such situations, with the Ghibellines vs the Guelphs of the Medieval periodand again in the Netherlands, with the Hoeks (Hooks) vs the Kaabeljauws (Cod-fish) of the c.14th and c.15th. Perhaps Britain now is facing a similar situation. Now no longer a great power, we shall be torn apart by our differences of opinion regarding the EU and the rest of the world.  Insulated for the past two decades by the absence of a geopolitical alternative, where a clear foe – the USSR – kept the coalition against it – The USA and EU in particular – bound together. Now China, India, Brazil, the nations of Africa, and the states of the Middle East all present themselves as partners of importance. The integration of the EU, that sped up in the 1990s, has to an extent forced the issue to a head. Those opposed to the EU became increasingly shrill in their dire warnings. Now with an actively hostile Russia, that funds and supports the breakdown of the western coalition, has found increasing openings for its intrigue. This, sadly enough, is likely to further polarise debate, as relations with Russia becomes an issue of the greatest importance again. However, given we are a democracy of the people for whom our immediate material circumstances are of great importance, foreign affairs, which has only an indirect effect on these circumstances, is never going to become the sole issue of an election. But it will become an issue of ever-growing urgency.

Ultimately, however important Brexit is as an issue it won’t be the new axis itself. It will, however, betray the real stances of the parties. Not just in the old left-right split, which amalgamates so many cultural and economic outlooks, but instead in a new split along these separate issues, cultural and economic. Electoral Calculus, a website focused on political data run by Martin Baxter, has investigated this and found the “left-right” axis fits well economically – on benefits, tax, and regulation – and provides the “internationalist/nationalist” axis as well. Clearly from this analysis the EU emerges as the key issue on the latter axis, if not so much the former. Brexit is the symptom of issues that are coming to the fore in British politics, and that shan’t leave for decades. Both politicians and voters would do well to catch on.