Talking to the foreign affairs desks back in Germany shortly after Rishi Sunak had delivered his first speech in front of No 10, there were audible sighs of relief. “Are the grown-ups back in charge, then?” was a question several of them asked, wanting to know if the new British Prime Minister might represent a departure from the political chaos of recent weeks. With a barely disguised hopefulness in their voices they added: “And does this mean we’ll be hearing a bit less from you for a while?”
Well, maybe, I thought, but probably not for too long. After the disastrous Liz Truss intermezzo shredded the remaining post-Brexit tatters of Britain’s reputation for rational, pragmatic politics, Sunak may well at least have a chance of lasting longer than a lettuce. Yet for all that the Tories would like to depict him as a rebirth, he is, at best, the embodiment of the party’s fourth (and probably last) attempt to “make Brexit work”. And since his government has so far failed to even acknowledge the actual problems caused by leaving the EU, he is like Truss and Boris Johnson before him, entangled in post-truth policies and thus unlikely to escape the fate of his predecessors.
The problem, as ever, is that the promises made by Brexit’s advocates simply cannot be fulfilled, creating internal contradictions within the Conservative Party and the wider UK political system that, as time goes on, with the national economic situation worsening, will only become more pronounced. The eurosceptic wing of the Tories was always an unstable, incalculable coalition of unlikely bedfellows, bringing together free-trade ultra-liberals and nationalist ideologues. Now the latter are increasingly dictating the tone of public discourse, drawing it ever further away from economic (or indeed any other kind of) reality.
An example of this is Sunak who, in doing the party-political maths, saw no other option than to re-instate Suella Braverman at the Home Office, with the result that she and her supporters immediately felt emboldened to veer onto far-right territory, adding yet another layer of tension and volatility to internal Tory relations. When Braverman uses words like “invasion” to talk about the refugees arriving in the UK, she is – knowingly or unknowingly – employing right-wing extremist language. Germans such as myself have come across this kind of terminology before – like in Heinrich Himmler’s Der Untermensch (“Subhumans”), published in 1942, which first served as a justification for the extermination of ethnic Russians and Slavs; shortly afterwards, it was being used as part of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic hate-campaign as it melded with anti-Slavic agitation.
In a depressingly predictable manner it was only a matter of days until major media outlets had adopted and thus normalised this kind of vocabulary. A BBC reporter for Kent talked of how the Home Secretary was headed down “to see for herself exactly how the UK is defending itself on the front line against migrants”. Braverman went even further. By landing at the Manston migrant centre in a Chinook, a military helicopter, she offered the corresponding image of that kind of “frontline reporting”. This was a deliberate stunt, considering that she came from Dover, a mere 20 miles away.
This kind of spectacle reveals just how wrong many optimistic Conservatives were in their insistence over recent years that, in contrast to developments elsewhere in Europe, the UK’s main centre-right party had been able to keep a resurgent far right in check by adopting a “broad church” approach. In fact, rather than hemming right-wing extremism in, the Tories have boosted its reach: extremist tendencies have become a part of the Conservative Party and, increasingly, are dominating it. Not that this is entirely new: it started well before the referendum on leaving the EU, for example when David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, used the dehumanising term “swarm” to describe migrants headed towards the UK in 2015. Now, Braverman and her backstage crew are intensifying that rhetoric, creating an explosive mix that escalates the chronic problems of the already rather vulnerable British democracy.
[See also: Britain’s big squeeze]
There are of course many reasons for the current chaos in British politics, but one major factor – often overlooked – is its first-past-the-post electoral system which, contrary to what its supporters argue, no longer produces a stable government. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in terms of representativeness, a two-party system may have been, for a long period, perfectly capable of responding to linear societal developments. In the 21st century, however, identities and allegiances have become much more fluid and plural, and this makes it increasingly difficult to argue the case for consigning every vote against the winner of each House of Commons seat to the dustbin.
It’s always been a mystery to me how, in a country in which “fairness” is such an important concept, there are so few who question whether it is fair to leave everyone in a constituency who votes for the losing party – or for smaller parties – without any representation whatsoever. The winner takes it all. To everyone else: “You lost. Get over it.”
The second thing that has changed – and this is the main reason for the current crisis – is that the UK’s majoritarian system, as the case of Braverman makes clear, yokes together political streams so incompatible that they are joined by nothing more than the sheer will to govern. The result is increasingly toxic infighting and extreme volatility.
As New Statesman’s writer at large Jeremy Cliffe recently wrote for the German weekly Die Zeit, the proportional representation systems of many countries in continental Europe seem to be doing far better at maintaining cohesion in increasingly fragmented societies facing the challenges of populism, rhetorical escalation and radicalisation. If the UK had had proportional representation during the tenure of David Cameron, for example, there would have been no need to admit xenophobic, far-right tendencies to the innermost circles of the Tory party – a position from which they then went on to exert their destructive influence all the more effectively. Rather, Nigel Farage and his Ukip outfit would probably have won around 10 to 12 per cent of the vote, as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) does in Germany. This gives the far-right vocal representation, but stops it from hijacking the centre-right mainstream. I would even go so far as to say it helps to keep the German conservatives in the middle ground, as they must constantly define themselves as centrist conservatism by distancing themselves from the far right.
In the UK system, however, the Tories’ permanent infighting, caused by the toxic influence of the hard right wing, leads to much less transparency and ever more frequent changes of leadership. For voters it can often be very hard to tell where the party they are endorsing actually stands, especially when manifestos don’t matter that much any more and prime ministers change as often as they did this year.
There are other ways the party lacks transparency. To this day, for instance, no one actually knows how many MPs form the hard core of the European Research Group. In an infamous interview with Channel 4 in 2017, Braverman, a former chairwoman of the group, refused to give even a rough hint of this number, let alone names. Add to this the ever-increasing influence of opaque think tanks with undisclosed financial backing, and you have a total lack of transparency for voters.
Britain is moving further away from the ideal of a transparent and fair democracy. Rather, it increasingly resembles a distorted democracy – one that needs proper electoral reform instead of more tweaks and muddling through. If not, it is in danger of becoming even more unstable.
As such, it doesn’t actually matter whether, in supporting Braverman, Sunak is “being a grown-up” and taking a tough decision to be able to govern or whether he, too, actually believes in her far-right agenda. As long as divergent streams within his party force him to back divisive policies, which will only increase tensions in British society and in the Conservatives, he is – sooner or lettuce – as doomed as all his predecessors. Something tells me the foreign desks back in Germany will be hearing from me again soon enough.
This article was translated from German by Brian Melican.
[See also: Rishi Sunak was meant to heal Tory divisions – but they’re only getting worse]