Analysis

Britain Still Stuck in the Grip of Populist Extremism

The Conservatives and Labour won an astonishing 82 percent of the vote in Thursday’s election, but Britain’s impending departure from the European Union could still cause a political earthquake

British Newspapers fronted with photos of British Prime Minister Theresa May and others are displayed at a shop in Westminster, London, June 10, 2017.
Tim Ireland/AP

LONDON – Much of the initial analysis of Thursday’s election results in Britain highlighted the fact that, unlike a year ago in the European Union referendum, many more young British voters came out to vote in 2017. And they overwhelmingly came out in favor of the left-wing Labour Party.

Another point has been that the Conservatives fared typically badly in constituencies where there had been substantial majorities in favor of remaining in the EU last year. The narrative is that the young and “remainers” have punished the Tories for Brexit.

There is, however, one big flaw in that narrative: Labour, which has capitalized on this anger against the Conservative Party, has also accepted Brexit. Indeed, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may have been officially in favor of remaining in the EU during last year’s referendum (just like Prime Minister Theresa May), but he barely took the trouble to campaign for the remain camp – and when he did, his enthusiasm was distinctly underwhelming.

As a radical socialist, he is hardly a fan of the EU, which he views principally as a capitalist organization. If he had campaigned last year with anything like the vim and vigor he exhibited in this parliamentary election and the two Labour leadership campaigns he waged and won in 2015 and 2016, many believe this could have made the difference in the closely fought referendum (which was 52 to 48 percent in favor of leaving).

Labour supporters holding placards at an anti-Conservative Party and anti-Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) demonstration in front of the Houses of Parliament in central London, June 10, 2017.
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Those still angry at the Brexit vote may taken revenge on May’s Conservatives in some parts of the country, but this is not a reversal of Brexit by any means. The United Kingdom is still split down the middle on Europe, and the polls still show a small majority in favor of leaving.

There was a justified feeling of satisfaction in Brussels and other European capitals over the blow dealt to May, and even more by the wipeout of the anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party, whose share of the national vote dropped from 13 percent in the 2015 election to 1.8 percent now and not a single parliamentary seat.

But it’s still way too early to talk of second thoughts in Britain, let alone a retreat from Brexit. May triggered article 50 of the European treaty at the end of March, and the clock is ticking. Britain is on course to leave the EU by the end of March 2019, and talks on the conditions of its departure are set to begin on June 19.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Phillip arriving at church in Sonning, west of London, June 11, 2017.
STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

The only problem is that no one has any idea of Britain’s negotiating positions. May called the snap election so she could have a strong majority in Parliament and an enhanced mandate. But now she is a fatally weakened prime minister, with a minority government and a party more divided than ever regarding the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe. And Corbyn’s Labour also failed to offer a clear idea on how it would like Brexit to proceed in its election campaign.

Half of Britain is still in favor of leaving the EU, and the other half currently has no political representation. The Liberal Democrats – the only party still favoring a rethink, and perhaps a second referendum that could cancel Brexit – did not perform well last week. It actually lost half a percentage point of the vote share, slipping to 7.4 percent. Due to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, its number of seats in Parliament actually went up 50 percent, from eight to 12, but the party’s former leader, Nick Clegg, lost his seat. Parliament has been deprived of one of its most articulate pro-European voices of moderation. It’s not only UKIP that has been wiped out in this election: the political center has pretty much been eviscerated too.

The EU referendum on June 23 last year was a milestone on the trail of increasing extremism and populism in the West. Nearly 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU following a campaign filled with false claims over the sums of money Britain pays to Europe, and the damage allegedly caused by immigrants from Eastern Europe allowed to reside and even receive benefits in Britain. Four and a half months after the result that shocked many, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

There have been signs in recent months that the wave of populist extremism may be receding somewhat. In the second round of the French presidential election in May, far-right leader Marine Le Pen did get 34 percent of the vote, but 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron swept to victory, building a brand-new centrist party from scratch.

French President Emmanuel Macron arriving in Le Touquet, France, on the eve of the first round of the parliamentary election, June 10, 2017.
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/REUTERS

Britain is still stuck in the grip of the populist trend. The two major parties moved to the opposite ends of the political spectrum in this election, and together won an astonishing 82 percent of the vote – up 15 percent from their joint tally in 2015. Theresa May promised a “hard” Brexit, and announced a drastic set of counterterror and counterextremism measures that, if necessary, would erode human rights. In Labour’s election manifesto, Corbyn proposed to renationalize key parts of the British economy and provide free university tuition and universal child care, without any clear idea of where the funding for these grand plans would come from.

This has been the most populist election campaign in Britain since perhaps 1945, when sitting Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed Labour would use “some form of Gestapo” to implement its policies. It failed then, and Labour leader Clement Attlee – a much more moderate figure than Corbyn – won by a landslide. In 2017, populism is far more effective.

But the current political chaos may offer an exit from the Brexit brawl. It is very hard to see how May – leading a minority government, and a split and angry party – can negotiate with Brussels and then push through the most controversial and complex divorce agreement in history. Many are expecting her to resign or be pushed out sooner rather than later. But the Conservatives have no alternative leader right now who is capable of uniting the party and creating cross-party consensus on Europe. Another election is possible, but the Conservatives are anxious not to go back to the polls for fear of a further defeat and seeing Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.

It’s still hard to see how such a national consensus can be achieved in Britain at the moment. But it’s important to remember a large majority of the members of parliament are still those who were in favor of remaining in the EU, and they are far more centrist than May – and certainly Corbyn.

When the turmoil in the Conservative Party calms down slightly and the so-called Corbynistas’ celebrations ebb, there will be a realization that cross-party agreement is necessary. It could mean a less severe Brexit, perhaps even second thoughts and a new grouping in the political center ground. On the other side of the English Channel, the big old French parties of left and right crumbled all of a sudden and Macron’s new centrist party is now in the ascendancy. It could happen in Britain, too.

Protesters with anti-Conservative Party and anti-Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) placards marching into Parliament Square in central London, June 10, 2017.
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP