In hindsight, the least surprising thing about the Brexit referendum of June 2016 was the outcome. Plebiscites on European integration have frequently resulted in upsets: the Norwegians voted against membership, not once but twice; the Danes voted against Maastricht; the Swedes voted against joining the single currency; the French and Dutch voted against the EU Constitution; and the Irish voted against Nice and Lisbon alike.
Of course, there’s still an important difference between opting not to join in the first place and deciding to leave after four decades of membership. However, Britain had long been a country where opposition to the EU possessed a strong foothold in mainstream politics. During the referendum campaign, the Leave side had the backing of the country’s two most popular newspapers, the Sun and the Daily Mail. It also had one of the most prominent figures from the ruling party — Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London — willing to lend his support.
Armed with these political weapons, the supporters of Brexit had a fair chance of victory, especially in a country where years of economic crisis had fostered disillusionment with the status quo. The fact that the Leave campaign came out on top by a relatively narrow margin, 52 to 48 percent, should not have been a huge shock.
The real conundrums that we need to solve arose before and after the referendum campaign. First of all, why did David Cameron call a vote on Britain’s EU membership in the first place, and why did his colleague and rival Boris Johnson go one step further by campaigning for Leave, despite believing that the Remain side would win? Secondly, why did the protracted crisis of the next three years result in victory for a hard-Brexit model that never commanded majority support? To answer both questions, we have to look at the history of class struggle in modern Britain.
Before Brexit, the last major challenge to the dominance of Britain’s ruling class had come in the 1970s. The process of defeating that challenge gave rise to a particular economic model that became known as Thatcherism. The early and sudden arrival of neoliberalism on British shores meant that the country went on to have a distinctive relationship with the European project. Without that British Sonderweg, it’s impossible to imagine Cameron and Johnson taking the risks that they did.
After the referendum of June 2016, the bipartisan consensus around Thatcher’s legacy appeared to be cracking up, with the Labour Party putting forward a clear alternative to that model and achieving unexpected electoral success. Hostility to the project that crystallized around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership united the pro-Brexit right with the supposedly anti-Brexit liberal center. Their combined efforts managed to defeat Corbyn’s party in the election of December 2019. The price of that achievement was the hardest possible form of Brexit — a price that Britain’s liberal center was only too happy to pay.
The Fire Last Time
To make sense of what happened in 2016, we have to go all the way back to Britain’s multifaceted crisis during the 1970s. There was a general mood of uncertainty in Western Europe and North America at the time, precipitated by the end of the postwar boom. For several reasons, the impact of the economic downturn on British politics was especially profound.
To begin with, Britain had already lost ground during the boom years, with growth rates significantly lower than those of competitors like France, Italy, and West Germany, and a declining share of world manufacturing exports. The loss of geopolitical influence, harder to bear for a state that had been among the victors in 1945, compounded the sense of national malaise. When the boom ended, it was the more prosperous layers of British society who initially felt the greatest impact.
On top of these social and economic factors came a direct political challenge to the status quo. Contrary to legend, the UK did not have the highest strike rate in the developed world during those years, trailing behind Canada, Italy, and the United States. Nor did it have an especially high rate of union membership — at 55 percent in 1978, union density was lower than in Ireland, let alone the Scandinavian countries.
However, cold statistics can be misleading. Britain may have been second only to Italy in the sense of political threat associated with rising labor militancy. Coalminers defeated the government of Edward Heath in two set-piece battles, with the second leading to Heath’s departure from office. Combined with the emergence of a newly combative Labour left grouped around politicians like Tony Benn, this stoked fear that capitalism itself might be in jeopardy.
By the time Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, the IMF crisis of 1976 and the strike wave that broke James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1978–79 had sharpened the desire in elite circles for a moment of rupture. Thatcher went on to implement the most radical package of neoliberal reforms in Western Europe. Her success in carrying out this program was the single most important development in British politics since the immediate postwar years, without which the Brexit crisis would have been inconceivable.
If we define neoliberalism as a project for the restoration of class power, rolling back the reforms that had previously been carried out under pressure from labor movements, the speed and scale of that rollback will obviously depend on the political context.
The most far-reaching experiments took place when a dictatorship held power, or in countries subjected to the control of an external coercive body like the International Monetary Fund. Neither of these conditions obtained in Western Europe during the 1980s, so the coming of neoliberalism was usually a more gradual process, chipping away at social-democratic reforms rather than making a clean sweep.
Britain is the principal exception. The country’s electoral architecture was one factor that made it easier for Thatcher to press ahead with her project in the face of daunting obstacles. The majoritarian, first-past-the-post system enables a party to secure a parliamentary majority with a plurality of the vote and no need for coalition partners. Single-seat constituencies also mean that the two major parties effectively write off large parts of the electoral map as enemy territory.
As a result, Thatcher’s government could deliberately engineer a recession that led to double-digit falls in manufacturing output for the industrial regions of Outer Britain without paying a heavy price at the ballot box. The Conservatives could safely dismiss those areas as Labour heartlands so long as they shielded electorally decisive constituencies from the impact of the downturn. Mass unemployment sapped the bargaining power of organized labor, paving Thatcher’s way to victory in the third miners’ strike of 1984–85.
Along with these features of the British political system, there were two economic specificities that set the country apart from its West European neighbors. First of all, the Tories had the good luck to assume office just as North Sea oil was coming on tap. This windfall plugged the fiscal gaps created by the monetarist recession of the early 1980s and the heavy blows it inflicted upon domestic manufacturing.
Denis Healey, James Callaghan’s chancellor of the Exchequer, summarized the results of this fossil fuel bonanza:
During Mrs Thatcher’s first nine years it brought the Treasury £62 billion in revenue, while its contribution to the balance of payments was nearly £100 billion. Without it, she would never have won even her second term; Britain would have been bankrupt by 1983.
The economist Sidney Pollard agreed: “Without the oil, the Thatcher experiment would almost certainly have been cut short as early as 1981 or 1982 after the unmitigated disasters of the first year or so of the new dispensation.” While the electoral benefits of the Falklands War for Thatcher are well known, she owed at least as much to oil rigs in the North Sea as she did to battleships in the South Atlantic.
North Sea oil revenues might wax and wane over the long term, but Thatcher and her allies had another joker in the pack: the City of London. Having abolished exchange controls soon after taking power in 1979, they pushed through the “big bang” of financial deregulation seven years later, launching the City on its path toward the stratosphere of investment banking. The strength of Britain’s financial sector appeared to offer permanent compensation for the decline of its great industrial regions. Until, that is, the bill came due in 2008.
Postwar European integration unfolded in two distinctive waves. The Treaty of Rome concluded in 1957 was pro-capitalist in a broad sense: compatible with the postwar social settlement in Western Europe, but not with steps beyond that consensus. A second wave began in the late 1980s with the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, hardwiring a much more prescriptive view of how to manage a capitalist economy into its structures. The single currency managed by the European Central Bank (ECB) became the capstone of this project.
The political classes of Western Europe decided upon this turn as a response to the economic turbulence and class struggles that succeeded the postwar boom. This was a different approach to neoliberalism, one that did not rely on set-piece confrontations in the national arena. Instead, it built up the European Union as a source of external pressure on governments to cut public spending, privatize industry, and liberalize markets.
This pressure was at work throughout the 1990s and the early years of this century. It ramped up dramatically after 2008, when the debt crisis enabled the European Commission and the ECB to impose structural adjustment policies on their own member-states, with a speed and severity that put Thatcher in the shade.
Britain stood apart from this project because its government had already carried out a sweeping program of liberalization and privatization without any need for outside support. When the other West European economies were preparing to join the currency union after Maastricht, British capitalism was entering a period of consolidation under Major and Blair, digesting the gains of the Thatcher years.
The idea of “social Europe” that accompanied the second wave of European integration amounted to some fine rhetoric and a few palliative measures — the spoonful of sugar that helped the neoliberal medicine go down. But the Tories had already wedged a funnel down the throat of organized labor and saw no call for sweeteners.
This divergence is fundamental to the story of Brexit. It is impossible to imagine a mainstream conservative politician in continental Europe risking the loss of EU membership in order to face down his inner-party critics and see off an electoral rival. That is precisely what David Cameron did. Still less can we imagine one of his colleagues actively campaigning for a Leave vote while expecting to lose. That is precisely what Boris Johnson did.
Their willingness to gamble no doubt reflected a general mood of complacency among a generation of British right-wingers who had never faced a real challenge. But it also stemmed from their relative indifference to the EU as a backstop for class power. In tandem with the Eurozone crisis, Cameron and George Osborne had imposed public spending cuts that bore comparison with those of southern Europe, without having to rely on communiqués from Brussels or Frankfurt to shore up their position.
A comparison with Italy is instructive. At one point, the country had a coalition government made up of two parties from outside the traditional governing class, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement. Both parties had ridden a wave of popular disillusionment with the EU after a long period of economic stagnation, combined with direct interference by European officials of a kind that Britain has never experienced.
Yet neither Matteo Salvini nor Beppe Grillo dared to propose a referendum on Italian membership of the single currency — let alone the Union as a whole. These rough-and-tumble outsiders were unwilling to roll the dice. Cameron and Johnson, two quintessential products of the British ruling class, proved to be much more reckless.
Labour and Brexit
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour campaigned for a Remain vote in 2016. In contrast with the Tories, there were no senior party figures on the Leave side, just a handful of backbenchers. Although Corbyn himself was a long-standing critic of the EU, there was no question of him shifting Labour toward a left-Leave position in time for the referendum.
Because of Britain’s distinctive relationship with the European project, most Labour members and voters did not see it as a barrier to left-wing politics, with many cherishing an outdated belief in “social Europe” that harked back to the appearance of Jacques Delors at the Trade Union Congress in 1988. Corbyn had a more sophisticated understanding of how the EU actually works. But he would never have been able to shift the thinking of an entire movement through sheer political will in the space of a few months, even if he had wanted to.
Under the circumstances, Corbyn’s left-Remain position was the only viable course during the referendum campaign. He refused to share platforms with David Cameron and put forward a distinctive line, criticizing the EU from the left while rejecting the xenophobic prospectus of the Leave campaign. According to Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll, 63 percent of Labour’s 2015 electorate voted Remain. The figure for the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose voter base has a similar profile to Labour’s, was almost identical: 64 percent.
Once the results were in, all of the main actors had to adjust their strategies to take account of the Leave victory. The nature of the British electoral system created a particular problem for Labour: because Remain voters were concentrated in larger towns and cities, almost two-third of Labour-held seats had a Leave majority. This was enough to explain the broad support among Labour politicians for the party’s policy — which was to accept the referendum result, while contesting the terms of its implementation — in the run-up to the 2017 election.
The idea that Corbyn himself imposed this line on his party was a retrospectively concocted fantasy: prominent figures on the Labour right such as Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper, and Chuka Umunna gave it their emphatic support. In fact, the main criticism of Corbyn from this political quarter focused on his reluctance to support new immigration controls. It was Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer who insisted on a line stating that “freedom of movement will end” in the party’s 2017 election manifesto.
However, there was more to Labour’s approach than plain electoral pragmatism. It spoke to a fundamental indeterminacy about what people had voted for in June 2016. The word “Brexit” itself dates back to 2012, as a spin-off from another neologism, “Grexit,” which seemed far more plausible at the time. Although Brexit soon became associated with a right-wing nationalist project, the term itself referred only to withdrawal from the political structures of the EU — everything else was up for grabs.
The demand for Scottish independence came to the fore at roughly the same time as the call for Brexit and is still very much on the agenda today. There were (and still are) several unresolved questions about it: Would an independent Scotland be a republic, or retain the British monarch as its head of state? Would it continue to use sterling, or set up its own currency, or join the Eurozone? Would it belong to international alliances such as NATO and the EU?
Yet all of these questions rest on the prior assumption that Scotland is to be a sovereign state, enabling it to make such decisions. The possession of sovereignty is what distinguishes Ireland from Scotland, Portugal from Catalonia, Austria from Bavaria, not population size or GDP. None of this applied in the same way to Brexit, because the European Union is not a fully-fledged state — however much some of its leaders might want it to be.
After joining the EEC, the UK never gave up its seat at the UN or its representation in bodies like NATO. Unlike most of the EU-15, it also retained its own currency. The question on the ballot paper in June 2016 said nothing about immigration controls, the single market, or the customs union. There were several conceivable models for Brexit: the use of terms like “BRINO” (Brexit In Name Only) by figures such as Nigel Farage was a sleight of hand designed to pass off their own preferences as the only legitimate expression of the popular will.
There was a calculated gamble underpinning Labour’s Brexit policy. To make it work, a critical mass of Leave voters would need to accept the kind of deal that Johnson, Farage, and the right-wing press might scorn, while another critical mass of Remain voters would have to make a compromise of their own, coming to terms with the country’s departure from the EU.
If the people who voted Leave in 2016 lined up four-square behind the Tories, the imbalances of the Westminster system would give the latter a thumping majority. If the people who voted Remain that year insisted on an all-or-nothing approach, they would most likely end up with nothing, and sink Labour’s electoral prospects in the process.
“The Worst Possible Deal”
Labour’s 2017 manifesto turned Theresa May’s slogan “no deal is better than a bad deal” on its head, insisting that a no-deal exit would be “the worst possible deal for Britain,” and promising to negotiate with “a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.” A Labour government would, the manifesto pledged, “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain” and “build a close co-operative future relationship with the EU, not as members but as partners.”
It would also preserve “all EU-derived laws that are of benefit,” and ensure that the UK “does not lag behind Europe in workplace protections and environmental standards in future.” Finally, Labour would insist there could be “no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.” The manifesto’s principal contradiction lay in the section on immigration:
In trade negotiations our priorities favor growth, jobs and prosperity. We make no apologies for putting these aims before bogus immigration targets. Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union. Britain’s immigration system will change, but Labour will not scapegoat migrants nor blame them for economic failures.
The promises to scrap “bogus immigration targets” and stop blaming migrants for the ills of British society sat awkwardly with Labour’s commitment to end free movement of workers from EU states. The latter pledge would require Britain to leave the single market, ruling out an arrangement like that between Norway and the EU, unless one engaged in a Jesuitical reading of the Labour manifesto, whereby freedom of movement could end in its current form, to be replaced by something that was functionally indistinguishable from the status quo.
This was the core of Labour’s Brexit platform at the time of the 2017 election. It was on this basis that Labour achieved a real electoral breakthrough, going from 30 to 40 percent — its highest vote share since 2001, and the biggest increase in support for either of the two main parties since 1945. Corbyn’s party deprived the Conservatives of their parliamentary majority even though the Tories added more than 5 percent to their 2015 score.
The vision set out in Labour’s 2017 manifesto guided its approach to Brexit until the first half of 2019. There was no need to search in obscure nooks and crannies for the logic underpinning Labour’s Brexit policy: it was all there in black and white. The claim that there was no difference between Labour’s plan and Theresa May’s negotiating agenda, so often made by anti-Brexit liberals, clearly flew in the face of the facts.
Labour’s advance in 2017 relied on a precarious balancing act. Its electorate that year broke down roughly two-thirds to one-third between Remain and Leave voters. The Tories had been hoping to cut a swathe through Labour-held seats with Leave majorities, and came much closer to achieving this goal than was appreciated at the time.
In the constituencies that later gave Boris Johnson his landslide in 2019, Theresa May’s party increased its vote share dramatically, from 32 percent in 2010 and 2015 to 42 percent in 2017. Labour beat back the Tory offensive by advancing even further: from 39 percent in 2010 and 42 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2017. It would be vital for Labour to keep the Leave-voting minority of its electorate on board, one way or another.
The 2017 election established Corbynism as a political phenomenon that could be ranked alongside Brexit. While both were antiestablishment insurgencies that defied the conventional wisdom to engage the support of millions, their demographic inflections were quite distinct: support for Brexit was older, whiter, and clustered in towns rather than cities, while Labour’s electorate skewed in the opposite direction. The result opened up two interlocking possibilities: a resolution of the Brexit crisis on terms that Britain’s nationalist right would find repugnant, and the election of a Labour government committed to a break with Thatcher’s legacy.
There were many people in Britain who would have welcomed the first prospect while deploring the second. However much they disliked the idea of a hard Brexit, Britain’s leading capitalists were even less keen on having Corbyn set up shop in Downing Street. For a concise summary of this perspective, we need only look at the editorial published by the Financial Times on the eve of the 2019 election.
At first glance, the chief organ of liberal, internationalist, Europhile capitalism appeared to be wishing a plague on both houses: “The main parties have put ideological purity before the good of Great Britain. Neither can command our support.” On close inspection, however, the FT’s editorial board clearly saw Boris Johnson’s hard-Brexit Tories as the lesser of two evils:
The party most distant from FT values — and whose policies are most perilous — is Labour under Mr Corbyn. Its socialist blueprint would replace a thriving market economy with a statist model. Labour aims to reverse, not revise, the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s . . . we recognize that many in the business community and beyond will inevitably conclude they must vote Conservative, however reluctantly, as the only way to keep Mr Corbyn from power. While a hung parliament might, in theory, allow Brexit to be rethought, this too would risk ceding dangerous influence to the Labour leader.
Whether or not British capitalism lacked the capacity to impose its line on the Conservative Party, it certainly lacked the will. If the Tories had to soften their position on Brexit, it might end up driving a wedge through their electoral base, to Labour’s clear benefit. Few captains of industry or finance were anxious to put their traditional party in that position, so big capital proved to be the dog that didn’t bark. Theresa May was under no pressure to soften her line for the Brexit talks so that it reflected both the will of the parliament elected in 2017 and the balance of popular opinion.
In the midst of the crisis that dominated British politics during the early months of 2019, EU officials welcomed Corbyn’s negotiating platform as “a promising way out of the impasse” that should be compatible with their own guidelines. By that stage, the media discourse around Labour’s approach to Brexit was so relentlessly post-factual that those comments went virtually unnoticed. At a moment of national crisis precipitated by May’s inability to push her deal through parliament, no reporter thought to ask why she was unwilling to compromise by moving toward Labour’s blueprint.
The British public was unusually reliant on the country’s media to evaluate different Brexit plans, since any model — soft, hard, or somewhere in between — would remain abstract until a government had actually put it into effect. The greater part of the British media insisted that Labour’s plan differed in no meaningful way from Theresa May’s and refused to listen when the EU itself bluntly contradicted that claim. It was hardly surprising that many people found it difficult to penetrate this fog and extract the few crumbs of useful information that were available to them.
With no pressure on May to come up with a deal that Labour could support, British politics started moving inexorably toward two elections that would test Labour’s Brexit platform to destruction, along with the entire Corbyn project. First, Labour suffered a major leakage of support in the European election of May 2019 to parties that were promising to hold a second referendum and campaign to stay in the EU.
The combined vote share for the hard-Remain parties — the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales — was just under 36 percent, while Labour won less than 14 percent of the vote and came third. At this point, we must remember that dislike of Labour’s Brexit policy among Remain voters was not simply a spontaneous reaction to events. There was a concerted effort by several political actors with considerable resources at their disposal to generate that feeling.
The Enemy of the Good
If the goal of this anti-Brexit maximalism had been to keep Britain in the EU, it proved to be altogether reckless and self-defeating, as was predicted at the time. But the real motivation for the leaders of the campaign was to use Brexit as a wedge issue to contain and reverse the left-wing advance of 2017.
The idea that a large-scale political mobilization can occur under the leadership of people who are entirely cynical in their motives may strike some as too facile or even conspiracist. But we are talking, after all, about a major historical process in which Boris Johnson played a decisive role, acting at all times with a patent lack of sincerity that was just as clear to his supporters as it was to his opponents. There is no reason why the Leave camp should have had a monopoly on such figures. Nor did it.
The People’s Vote campaign was the main organizational vehicle for the anti-Brexit movement. Funded by the businessman Roland Rudd, it attracted support from Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, and from the Scottish nationalists, who controlled the UK’s most important regional government and had a large bloc of MPs at Westminster. In addition, it possessed a stronger base in the Parliamentary Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn himself. The Guardian and its sister-paper, the Observer, were also part of the anti-Brexit alliance that its detractors referred to as “Continuity Remain.”
Until Labour changed its Brexit policy in the summer of 2019, it was still possible to explain the behavior of Continuity Remain in terms of myopic complacency rather than cynicism. People’s Vote insiders explained to journalists at the start of the year that their primary goal was to eliminate any possibility of a soft-Brexit deal and polarize the field.
After MPs had voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times, the campaign’s parliamentary allies declined to support a soft-Brexit model, or one that would have kept Britain in the customs union, during the round of “indicative votes” at the start of April. Finally, the People’s Vote leadership presented the European election to Remain supporters as an opportunity to punish Labour for its stance, while paying little attention to the hard-Brexit radicalization on the other side of the fence.
It already strained credulity to suggest that highly experienced political operators were pursuing this strategy because they had no sense of the risks it entailed. But the period leading up to the 2019 general election removed any basis for doubt. The European poll had also been a fiasco for the Tories: they won less than 9 percent of the vote, while the newly established Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage came first with a whopping 30.5 percent.
This was enough to trigger a ruthless fightback. The Conservatives bundled Theresa May into retirement and replaced her with Boris Johnson, tasked with finishing what he had started in 2016. Johnson promised to have Britain out of the EU by October 31. His first plan was to call a snap general election at the beginning of autumn, in advance of the October deadline. That way, he could declare himself willing to leave without a deal, clawing back support from the Brexit Party on that basis, without having to follow through on his rhetoric.
Johnson hoped to secure a bigger parliamentary majority and the authority that electoral success would grant him, in which case he could expect to push through an agreement with the EU, even if it bore a striking resemblance to May’s. However, the new Conservative leader was unable to get parliament to call the election that he wanted, so he fell back on plan B and set about negotiating with the EU in earnest.
At the beginning of October 2019, Johnson returned from the talks triumphantly brandishing a new agreement. Although there were plenty of details still to be ironed out, the key point was clear: his government would leave Northern Ireland to go its own way so the rest of the UK could have a clean break with the customs union and the single market.
This time, Johnson had little problem getting parliament to call a snap election. The only people who could stop him now were the opposition parties, whose leadership teams were supposed to be in agreement about the need for a second referendum.
By the time the election campaign began, there was very little chance of Labour winning the kind of majority that Jeremy Corbyn would have needed to enact serious reforms; its polling figures had taken too much of a hit over the course of 2019 for that. The most plausible way of stopping Johnson’s plan was to elect a Labour minority government reliant on support from the Lib Dems and the SNP, with all of its limited energies devoted to organizing a referendum.
For anyone who prioritized stopping Brexit, the choice should have been an easy one. This was the point at which the entire Continuity Remain project revealed itself to be a sham with a brazenness that was almost magnificent.
Supporters of Brexit cleared the decks to make sure that Johnson would have no spoilers to worry about from his own side. When Nigel Farage threatened to run a slate of candidates and split the pro-Brexit vote, the Leave impresario Arron Banks ruthlessly whipped him into line, insisting on the need to “save Brexit and save the country from a Corbyn government.”
His counterpart in the hard-Remain camp, People’s Vote chairman Roland Rudd, did precisely the opposite. Rudd shut down the whole operation and physically excluded its chief staffers from the campaign headquarters to make sure that none of its resources would be used to support Labour candidates.
The Liberal Democrats offered a variation on the same theme, responding to Labour’s change of line on Brexit by pretending that it hadn’t happened, as their own election review later acknowledged. The Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson absurdly claimed to believe that she could overtake both Labour and the Conservatives, making it unnecessary to cooperate with either party.
The election review described Swinson’s campaign as a “high-speed car-crash.” Although the metaphor points in the right direction, we should really speak of a different vehicle, because Swinson engaged with Labour in the spirit of a Japanese fighter pilot approaching a US battleship. The fact that she ended up losing her own seat in the process was a small price to pay for the damage she inflicted with her kamikaze mission.
Liberal media outlets followed suit. The New Statesman refused to endorse Labour in even the most grudging fashion. Guardian columnists expressed outrage at the very idea that they might be expected to choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
In an especially repugnant episode, the Observer urged Remain supporters in London’s Kensington constituency to support an ex-Tory Lib Dem candidate over the Labour incumbent, knowing full well that he had no chance of winning. Since Labour’s Emma Dent Coad lost her seat to the Conservatives by just a hundred fifty votes, there’s every reason to think that this intervention was decisive.
The moral significance of what happened in Kensington was much greater than its objective importance for the election result. The constituency was the location of the Grenfell disaster in 2017, when seventy-two people died in a fire as a result of criminal negligence. Dent Coad had done outstanding work on behalf of the victims and their families; her Lib Dem opponent lied about Grenfell during the election campaign; the Tory who replaced her voted against implementing the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry.
The leading representatives of middle-class liberalism had addressed themselves to London’s multiracial working class with a clear message: our feelings are worth more than your lives. They had spent years insisting that Brexit was the great moral issue of our time. Now, having pushed and prodded Labour into opposing it outright, despite all the risks involved, they decided that Brexit wasn’t so important after all.
Much like their counterparts elsewhere, they were careless people. They smashed up parties and movements and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
A Regressive Alliance
Overall, the vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party declined by almost 8 percent in December 2019. While Labour held onto four-fifths of its 2017 Remain voters, barely half of its Leave electorate stuck with the party. Of the sixty seats that Labour lost, fifty-two had a pro-Brexit majority in 2016.
For right and center alike, the paramount goal was stopping Corbyn and the Labour left from taking power through the ballot box. For the Right, that meant riding the Brexit tiger as far as it would go to keep their electoral coalition together, even if that meant jeopardizing the long-term future of the United Kingdom. For the center, it meant taking all the hopes and fears of those who had voted Remain in 2016 and driving them over a cliff.
The whole inglorious affair reached a fitting conclusion at the end of 2020, as the new Labour leader Keir Starmer whipped his MPs to support Johnson’s hard-Brexit deal. This move elicited general indifference from the same liberal pundits who had furiously accused Starmer’s predecessor of “enabling Brexit,” even as he thwarted the passage of May’s agreement with the EU.
A small batch of left-wing Labour MPs refused to go along with the leadership line, including Jeremy Corbyn, who had recently been suspended from Labour’s parliamentary group by Starmer for telling the truth about the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Right and center clasped hands against the Left over the twitching corpse of Continuity Remain.
Brexit was the biggest transformation of Britain’s external relations since the country joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Its consequences will be unfolding for many years to come. The terms of Johnson’s deal have already had a destabilizing impact on Northern Ireland, and there is bound to be more trouble coming down the line.
Meanwhile, a post-Corbyn Labour Party is struggling to overcome the legacy of a highly successful wrecking campaign that converted the breakthrough of June 2017 into a rout two years later. Having offered the Conservatives a wide road into their party’s traditional heartlands, in full awareness of what they were doing, the Labour right is finding it much harder to get them out again.
But they’d do it all again if they had the chance. After all, the career prospects of such figures are not reliant on electoral success: if they lose their seats, they can always find a job working for the gambling industry, like Tom Watson and Anna Turley, an investment bank, like Chuka Umunna, or a PR firm, like Luciana Berger.
As the long-term ramifications of the Brexit crisis continue to make themselves apparent, it’s vital to remember two key points. That crisis was deeply embedded in the way Margaret Thatcher transformed British society during the 1980s; and the way Britain’s political class eventually resolved it was shaped above all by its desire to uphold Thatcher’s legacy against a challenge from the Left.