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22 May 2019

The European elections will show how weary Britain is of its leaders

Dr Russell Foster

RUSSELL FOSTER: The vote is likely to reveal how little faith the British have left in their traditional parties


Following an unexpected encounter with a milkshake during a visit to Newcastle, Nigel Farage has expressed concern that Remainers are becoming radicalised, and that political campaigning is becoming impossible. With Britain on the verge of European elections which are seeing the nation’s Brexhaustion replaced with a second wind of political energy, his claim that campaigning is impossible might be an overstatement. But not only is Farage correct about the growing hostility in British politics, this otherwise trivial incident points to something far more urgent in British politics: not just radicalisation, but sacralisation.

Where radicalisation describes the moderate becoming extreme, sacralisation describes the secular becoming sacred. Until quite recently, British politics inspired boredom and apathy. But it has bocome sacralised, divided into righteous and unholy. In the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, the EU referendum, two general elections in four years, and local elections; and faced with European elections, demands for a second Scottish independence referendum and a second EU referendum, and chronic instability in the two main parties, British politics has entered a new phase. Far from Brexhaustion, apathy, or political fatigue, British politics increasingly resembles the politics of the 17th-century Wars of Religion, in which one’s opponent is not merely wrong, but evil. Knowingly evil. The toxicity and polarisation of British politics is increasing a sense of outrage, contempt, and hatred from all factions, and a growing belief that if someone’s politics do not align directly with your own, they are morally repugnant. And therefore illegitimate.

The consequence of this is the demonisation of opponents, who are stripped of their legitimacy simply by virtue of having a different opinion. Nigel Farage is denounced as a fascist and racist for supporting Leave, with little to no mention of the significant black and minority ethnic vote for Leave in 2016. When MPs left Labour and the Conservatives to form The Independent Group, fellow MPs and activists wrote them off as apostates. Any Labour member who questions Jeremy Corbyn is immediately accused in tones that would be familiar to an inquisitor. There is a direct political consequence too: the more that dissenting voices and different opinions are demonised, the more likely it is that people who hold them will stay silent until election day – with elections returning unexpected results. In 2014 only a third of British voters bothered to turn up to the European elections. In 2019, the European elections might result in an even greater victory for the Brexit Party, and an even worse result for its opponents, than current polling suggests. A growing culture of intolerance in British politics is far from exclusive to isolated fanatics who throw milkshakes or tweet death threats. It has affected all parties, both sides of the Brexit debate, and will become even more manifest after the European elections.

All of this takes place in an atmosphere of contempt, anxiety, distrust, and outright hatred which has spread throughout British society. In the immediate aftermath of Brexit, national anxieties were focused on hate crimes against immigrants by Leavers – which certainly did, and still do, happen. But three years later many Remainers also shows signs of shifting towards an extreme, from ostentatious symbolism, to a warped nostalgia for the EU, to physically assaulting politicians who hold, and represent, different views.

68% of British people feel abandoned by all parties, and more than half of the country believes the political system is irreparably broken. The left and right, now more polarised than ever, are infected with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Whatever happens with Brexit, the New Right and far right will be able to capitalise on a sense of betrayal and a “Stab in the Back”. And there is no hope of the traditional parties fixing this mess in the foreseeable future. The Conservatives are still fighting their three-year-old civil war, and as the recent local elections showed, have lost the faith of the British public. Labour – who not only lost seats against a government that has been in power for nine years, but a government that is the least popular since the Duke of Wellington’s Ultra-Tories in 1832 – is being led to disaster by a man who genuinely believes that Brexit isn’t really an issue for British voters in a European election. The Liberal Democrats, despite making impressive gains, are still too much of a single-issue party for their members to start celebrating potential domestic victories. Change UK is stillborn, UKIP has returned to 1990s levels of support, the Greens will do barely worse than the Tories, and the SNP and Plaid Cymru are barely visible. This leaves one faction to gain most on Thursday.

Instead of traditional leaders, political success is overwhelmingly held by a party which, only seven months ago, didn’t even exist. The Brexit Party, in position to sweep to first place in elections which are traditionally ignored by the British, illustrates the unprecedented and unstable state of our politics. In mere months, a party has emerged in a political system which is not only plodding and slow to change but which is brutally harsh on newcomer parties. In months, a completely new faction threatens to deliver the three main parties – which were around when Queen Victoria was still on the throne – their worst defeat in history.

The European elections on Thursday will see the beginning of a new phase in British politics – one which might finally break the Brexit deadlock one way or the other, and one which will starkly illustrate how weary the nation is of its leaders. The Conservatives will poll at embarrassingly low levels. The Lib Dems will celebrate a short burst of popularity. Labour will do better than their Tory rivals, but will celebrate a Pyrrhic victory in the shadow of Farage’s new movement. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit Party, their stunning success in the harsh and unforgiving system of British politics, and in the traditionally uninspiring European Parliament elections, illustrates just how badly broken British politics is, and how little faith the British have left in their traditional parties.

After Thursday, we can expect a resurgence of all factions, all parties, denouncing their opponents as evil and hurling the worst kinds of abuse. Milkshakes will be the least of our worries.

Dr Russell Foster is AEP Lecturer in Britain and European Integration in the Deptartment of European & International Studies, King's College London.

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