Britain’s Big Parties: At War With Themselves

Brexit pitted globalizing leaders against many of their own constituents.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives to give a speech during a “Keep Corbyn” rally outside the Houses of Parliament on June 27.

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

For a while, it looked as if Britain’s 750-year-old democracy might have neither a government nor an opposition. Prime Minister David Cameron, who called a referendum on European Union membership and lost it, had taken the only course and fallen on his sword. Lawmakers from the opposition Labour Party, furious with their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for what they saw as his sabotage of the campaign to keep Britain inside the EU, attempted to throw him overboard.

In the days following the June 23 vote, the country drifted rudderless. For weeks, Brexit’s most prominent supporters had been boasting that they had a plan for getting Britain out of the EU. Now that the moment had come, its leaders denied their earlier promises of more money for health care and a lower tax on fuel brandished on Brexit campaign posters. They also demanded to know why Cameron hadn’t prepared for the possibility of defeat. Ministers in the Remain camp said it was for Cameron’s successor to unveil a plan.

The referendum exposed deep rifts within Britain. The first was geographic: London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland voted Remain; almost everywhere else voted Leave. Scotland may get another referendum on independence which could spell the end of the U.K.

The gap between London and the rest of England wasn’t geographic. It was economic. London is an expensive metropolis whose infrastructure regularly collapses in the face of weather or strikes. But it’s also one of the world’s great cities, as diverse as any place on the planet, with skyscrapers to match New York, restaurants to match Paris, museums to match Florence.

If the capital has benefited from the great game of globalization, the rest of the country clearly feels it has lost. The first mainland result of the referendum came from Sunderland, 400 miles north of London. It had always been expected to back Brexit; what was shocking was the size of the vote: 61 percent voted to leave. Nissan owns a car plant there and had urged a vote to stay in the EU. The Labour Party, which has always counted on former industrial regions like this to back it, had said the same. Both were ignored.

For voters in Sunderland, the 21st century has brought insecurity, low-paid work, and immigrants. There are 130,000 economically active adults in Sunderland and only 7,000 jobs at Nissan. The local shipbuilding industry has long since withered away.

The failure of free markets to deliver prosperity evenly poses a problem for the traditional parties. Historically, Labour held the northern cities, and the Conservatives held the countryside and the wealthy shires of the southeast. But Labour, a pro-EU, pro-immigration party, has learned that many of its voters feel differently. While Labour’s position plays well in London, it’s anathema in the heartlands.

Meanwhile, whoever succeeds Cameron as Conservative leader is likely to be a Euroskeptic. That will work well in the countryside but badly among the businesspeople the party relies on for funds and votes. Americans struggling to grasp the contradiction should try to imagine a presidential contest between a globalizing Democrat who woos Wall Street and an isolationist Republican who attacks Big Business.

The problem can be summed up in Boris Johnson, who sensationally dropped out of the race to succeed Cameron on June 30. The former London mayor was the face of the 2012 Olympics, a cheerleader for global Britain. He was also the face of the Brexit campaign. While most of the leaders of that campaign are committed globalizers, they realized that the route to victory ran through places like Sunderland and campaigned on a promise to reduce immigration. Johnson is now trying to distance himself from the anti-immigrant rhetoric, arguing that voters were more motivated by the desire to defend parliamentary sovereignty. Many disagree. “This is principally an anti-immigration vote. It’s not about sovereignty. These are voters who want less immigration. You can’t navigate this without addressing that,” says Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent.

Even if the parties can figure out what they ought to look like, they haven’t much time to get into position: Cameron’s successor will be under pressure to call a general election—the second in two years—to secure a mandate.

If Labour and the Conservatives try to water down the referendum result to keep free movement of people—an essential part of EU policy—they create an opportunity for insurgent movements such as the UK Independence Party. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is already accusing fellow Brexiters of betraying the pledge to curb immigration.

If Labour and the Conservatives back Brexit, they create an opportunity for someone promising to reverse the referendum. The Liberal Democrats, who control only eight seats in Parliament, are positioning themselves in precisely that spot. Britain, in the middle of its greatest diplomatic and economic crisis in half a century, needs a government that can unite London and Sunderland. Failing that, it just needs a government.

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