The UK and Europe

Brexit and a British civil war

Giles Merritt / Jun 2016

Photo: Shutterstock


If you thought the UK’s Brexit debate is all about Europe, think again. As the arguments have become more and more vitriolic, they have also shifted ground. Brexit is no longer a rational In/Out discussion, it is a political civil war. EU membership is still the issue that voters will decide on 23rd June. But for Britain’s political elite, Brexit has become a catalyst that will determine party leaderships and the country’s path in the years ahead.

No-holds-barred power struggles are now under way in both of Britain’s main political parties. Key elements are the self-interest of the UK’s most prominent politicians, and their astonishingly-divergent views on the UK’s place in the world. There are in fact two parallel civil wars; the Tory and Labour parties have both split down the middle, not only on the Brexit question but also on other divisive issues that have festered for some time.

The governing Conservative Party is rent asunder by hitherto unimaginably ferocious personal attacks of its leading members against each other. The short-term prize they are fighting over is the prime ministership, and the long-term price they will pay is the end of almost two centuries of cohesiveness and power. The stakes are much the same in the Labour party. The EU membership issue is being used as a pretext by the party’s centre-right to oust its controversial hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn. As with the Tories, the chances of Labour regaining its unity in the wake of the Brexit referendum look remote.

It is increasingly uncertain that David Cameron can survive the referendum, even if he wins the vote for staying in. He had bowed to calls for a referendum on the supposition that he had only a fringe of eurosceptic Tory malcontents to deal with, and is now held responsible for a massive miscalculation. The vociferously anti-EU ‘Little Englanders’ on the right-wing of his party have been joined by opportunists who were openly agnostic on the pros and cons of EU membership, notably Boris Johnson. A former journalist who in a long-ago Brussels spell invented “euro-myths” like EU rules on straight bananas and on condom sizes, he is Britain’s most popular Tory politician. His undisguised aim is to replace Cameron in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

British politicians’ support for the EU and the wider project of European economic and political integration is confusing. For many years, the Labour Party tended to be eurosceptic and the bulk of the Conservatives were more pro-Europe. When Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ won power almost 20 years ago, it was so strongly europhile that it almost joined the eurozone. Tory politicians, meanwhile, responded to grassroots xenophobia and to the discontent created by the 2008 recession. On both sides of the UK’s left-right divide, there is now a substantial body of opinion that opposes what is labelled “Brussels’ rule”.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the likelihood is that EU issues will become a neverendum. The civil wars now being fought out may well mean the end of the country’s two dominant political parties, paving the way for a very different system in which coalition governments become the norm. Whether or not that’s desirable, it is certainly a far cry from the neat and tidy referendum that David Cameron hoped would definitively settle the UK’s ‘European question’.



Giles Merritt

Giles Merritt

June 2016

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