Alistair Burt: We should fear, not celebrate, the decline of the two-party system

Don’t fall for Jenga politics – you don’t know which brick will bring it all down.

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In 1974, when Lord Denning famously predicted the extent of the impact of European law on an unsuspecting UK legal system as being tidal, flowing “into the estuaries and up the rivers – it cannot be held back”, he was, as always, right.

You might now say the same about Brexit itself. Its impact, on so many aspects of UK life, has been similarly overwhelming. It is spoken about nearly everywhere, with greater or lesser enthusiasm. It dominates news media and comment, and will dominate aspirations or fears for years to come. It has flowed through every river of communication we possess.

But did we expect one of the casualties to be the existing two party system, now being pulled apart with defections from left, right and centre? Good thing too, some will say. How can it be that with the advent of so much choice in every aspect of our lives, from retail, to entertainment, to lifestyle that the same two parties which were the butt of the jokes on Hancock’s Half Hour are still targets of The Last Leg?

However, hold on a minute. Be careful what you wish for. A legitimate hope of the fragmentation of the Conservative and Labour parties is that in some way it will lead both to a greater consensus in politics, while at the same time responding to a public mood that somehow people are no longer being represented by the major parties, and they want something where their views, not others’, hold sway.

I’m not sure this can be done. The public mood at the moment does not show much sign of consensus. Rather, people are becoming more polarised in their demand for their own view to be represented, thus surely leading to the risk that fragmentation will tend to the extremes, not the middle – that we would not have a political system where parties work together, but where extremist parties would seek to pin the tail on the largest donkey after an election, and wag it. New parties might not be parties at all, but merely expressions of protest or single issue groups.

For all their faults, the Conservative and Labour Parties have historically managed to sort out internal differences, while still offering to millions a coherent manifesto on which to govern or be judged. We lose this at our peril. We need renewed efforts to resist further factionalisation, and maintain groupings in which people have found a way to converge, not separate, and fall victim to the modern fad that everything, everything must be individual and suit me.

We live at a fragile time. A complacency has set in, a feeling that the building blocks which have kept Western Europe safe following the tragedies of the twentieth century can be casually tossed away; that the multi-lateral system which brought coherence post 1945 to the world can be carelessly lost. Societies can perish incredibly quickly.

None of us know the removal of which brick will bring the Jenga tower down. But, if enough are taken away, fall it will.

Alistair Burt is the Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire and a former minister.