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19 June 2024

Britain faces bigger problems than its Tory party

With Brexit, the UK reclaimed a considerable measure of formal sovereignty – but not its democracy.

By Christopher Caldwell

The tragic aspect of a country’s politics is sometimes more evident to foreigners, mesmerised as the natives generally are by their narrow-bore partisan hatreds. We can agree that the heads-of-government photo from this year’s 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings – with a windblown David Cameron standing in for an absent Rishi Sunak alongside Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron – is a potent metaphor. To many Britons the election is about Sunak’s abysmal judgement – and his party’s. Having seemingly called the election in the belief that his fellow citizens would rather undergo another five years of Tory slapstick than miss out on the first Rwanda flights for asylum seekers, he now decides to ditch the last decennial commemoration that survivors of the Normandy landings will ever attend, in order to do a… what was it? An ITV interview? A TikTok short?

From across the Atlantic it appears Britain faces bigger problems than just its Tory party. No doubt the past decade has seen the sorriest run of prime ministers in the country’s history. But America is in the same boat. Of our last four presidents, three would sit comfortably on most people’s list of the worst ten ever. The problem is structural, international and dangerous: it is a ruling class that cannot connect with the wider public, whether through well-meaning misunderstanding or cynical cupidity, and yet cannot be replaced.

To an American, what makes the photo is not the absent Sunak but the revenant Cameron. For a decade, Brexit voters had believed themselves on a journey out of bondage, led by a succession of less and less plausible Moses figures, and now from behind the mask of the last of them emerges the face of the pharaoh they fled. British intellectuals should be in a delirium of joy. Cameron was ousted as part of the most ambitious uprising against an elite in any Western country since the Second World War. Intellectuals sneered at the revolt and rallied to the class it sought to topple. It is their class, too. “Europe” was sacred to the British elite in all its branches.

This election is – once again – about Brexit. One cannot say Brexit “failed”. Britain won back a considerable measure of formal sovereignty. But that alone did not do what Brexit was meant to. There was a constitutional obstacle, in the form of the EU, to the recovery of British democracy. But once that obstacle was overcome, a new obstacle, a sociological one, was revealed. Brexit was a protest against the way the country had been democracy-proofed. But the EU turned out to have been an expression of democracy-proofing, not an ultimate cause of it. Society had reshaped itself around plutocracy, bureaucracy and suppression of dissent.

Theresa May understood none of this. “Sovereignty” was not a word in her vocabulary. Negotiating the so-called Irish backstop, Britain took all the responsibility for avoiding a “hard border” between the Irish Republic and the North, agreeing to EU customs checks in British waters, lest British goods be smuggled into the EU over the Irish land border. This was surreal. Why not British customs checks in Dublin, for there was no less risk of EU goods being smuggled into Britain! May’s negotiators, led by Olly Robbins (later of Goldman Sachs and the “global strategic advisory firm” Hakluyt), really did try to get the best deal for Britain they could – by their lights. As they saw it, the priority was not to claim the prerogatives of British sovereignty, but to minimise the “damage” of British sovereignty.

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An American cannot avoid a word about an ex-compatriot; gifted, untrustworthy Boris Johnson, who will have a not-ignoble place in Britain’s history books. Since politicians lose prestige and credibility when they permit themselves to be lied to, Johnson’s fellow Tories had reason to collaborate in his ousting, even understanding they could do a lot worse. (Which they promptly did.) But that’s all. British pundits dressed up the investigation and removal of Johnson for attending a couple of lockdown-violating parties as some kind of triumph of constitutional principle. To Americans it looks more like impeaching Bill Clinton for adultery – pure political humbug.

Probably things will get less stable when the Tories go. Farage could inherit a Trumpian prominence. A Remainer Keir Starmer remains. Sometimes, as under Reagan or Blair, the broader the majority the narrower the governing programme, since the best-organised factions tend to be those with the crudest aims. With a 450-seat majority, pressure to court Brussels will mount. A return to the EU is more than imaginable.

The conservative lurch in recent continental elections makes British readmission more, not less, attractive to Brussels. Britons understand the EU no better than they did. Thanks to new Covid-related and Ukraine-related bond issues, Brussels is armed with instruments of financial pressure that make it much more intrusive than it was in 2016. Everyplace is Greece now.

The public clearly has strong private hunches about Brexit that accompany its intemperate public judgements. It is a commonplace to say that Johnson won his great 2019 majority on the strength of the public’s support for Brexit and disdain for Jeremy Corbyn. That’s wrong. Brexit was the thing. When Theresa May snubbed Brexiters in her 2017 campaign she brought Corbyn to within a whisker of Downing Street. Reclaiming sovereignty through Brexit, however traumatic, really did make the country more democratic, and has spurred follow-on claims. That is why, except on immigration, Britain shows signs of moving left as the rest of Europe moves right. The situation is more volatile than it looks.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

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