Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 16 November 2017

The Brexit Revolution and its source of power

What we are seeing in the UK right now is quite incredible. The referendum vote itself was quite something: people voting to make themselves poorer than they might otherwise be for some ill-defined notion of control or because of myths about immigration. But what has happened subsequently is even more extraordinary.

With a referendum vote so close, it would have been both natural and statesmanlike for the government to go with the majority in the most unifying way possible. The obvious way forward would have been to arrange a open-ended transition where we were out of the EU but still in the Customs Union and Single Market, leaving the government to see what it might be possible to negotiate as an alternative. In other words the policy the Labour party are currently suggesting. From the polls that seems to be what the majority of people want. Little would change for business, so this way forward from the vote would have caused only minor immediate economic damage.

Instead of this, it seems that the leaders of the Leave campaign have not just won that vote, but have effectively taken over the government, dictating not just the government's preferred terms and timetable of leaving but also taking away large chunks of power from parliament at the same time, Henry VIII style. A few brave Conservative MPs plea for parliament to be given just a minimal say in some of the most profound changes in the UK in decades, and their faces are put on the front page of the main ‘serious’ right wing newspaper under the headline ‘mutineers’.

How can this be happening in a country known for its pragmatism? It seems more like the revolution that happened 100 years ago, where the revolution’s leaders declare any doubt or deviation from the path they decide as treachery. Any suggestion that it might be to our advantage to conduct negotiations to Leave in a slightly different way is declared as nothing more than a plot to overturn the Revolution. At one stage business leaders had to pretend Brexit was going to be wonderful before they were allowed to talk to ministers. Anyone who dares to point out bits of reality that might get in the way of the one true path is a saboteur that really wants to overturn the will of the people. This is a regime in a democracy that seems at times more like a dictatorship.

How can this be happening? How can so few wield so much power? Why does the Prime Minister, who was a Remainer, now dance to the tune of the revolution's leaders? A referendum in which 52% of voters chose just to leave the EU, nothing more, cannot confer this kind of power. Even the right wing press are not that powerful on their own. The answer I think lies in a group of perhaps little more than 100,000 people, two thirds men and around half of whom are over 65. They are the membership of the Conservative party.

These members are far more anti-European than the party’s MPs or its current Prime Minister. The threat the Brexiters have, which Remain MPs fear and which has governed so many of the Prime Minister’s actions, is that they will force a leadership election. In any election a Brexiter is almost certain to be on the ballot that goes to party members, and given that electorate (and the influence the Tory press have on them) a Brexiter will almost certainly win. They will then go for a clean break from the EU, or what is commonly known as No Deal.

What else could explain a Prime Minister putting forward legislation involving a fixed date to leave that might make her own life more difficult, just because it was suggested (one might guess) by the editor of a right wing tabloid at his birthday party? Why else does she tolerate almost open insubordination by her foreign secretary that would in any other situation have led to him losing his job. Why is she so concerned about keeping her Brexiter ministers happy and as a result ignores the rest of her MPs and by now the majority of the country? She has focused all her energy on preventing a rebellion from her right and as a result has completely neglected the discussions with the EU.

Although the influence of Conservative party members is talked about a bit, I still find the contrast with Labour just a year or two ago extraordinary. Then all that political commentators could talk about was the malign influence that half a million Labour party members were having on the opposition party. Yet here we have a much smaller group of Conservative party members effectively holding the government, parliament, the Prime Minister and therefore the country hostage, during the most important period of UK politics in a generation. Will our political commentariat that are not part of this revolution please wake up.   


  1. I think you have a typo on the next-to-last paragraph: "almost open subordination" should be "almost open insubordination"


  2. Comparing the Brexiter Tory membership (75% in a poll of Conservative Home said they've vote to Leave) and the role of the Corbynistas and press attention on them is an excellent insight. However, invoking a comparison to the Russian Revolution is hyperbolic and insulting and seriously damages the power of this post. Think how it would go down if shared on social media. Of course you would not want such a comparison made about yourself (over any "deviation" from EU membership since you think it would be harmful to the economy, as do I; the Leavers merely have an incorrect belief about good vs harm). Politeness costs nothing and I hope you'll refrain from such language in future. Enough public pressure is what's needed to change course, and that can only be gained for Remain through persuasion, not calling people mad and things like that.

    1. "Crush the Saboteurs".
      Vladimir Lenin, 19 Jan 1918.

      Now, where have I heard that phrase recently?
      Or am I "insulting" you, snowflake?

    2. All sorts of political groups accuse their opponents of being bad (remember Tony Blair calling critics of public services changes "wreckers"?) and it's rarely gonna justify comparisons to the mass murderer Lenin. The Tories don't have gulags, and the Brexiters aren't a dictatorship -- any more than Momentum is, a point SW-L himself was making.

      SW-L can of course express himself any way he likes, and I agreed with his overall point, but with language like this it's not gonna be effective.

      You're not insulting me, no, since I'm a Remainer. We need more Remainers. If we don't want them to call us saboteurs, we can't compare them to commies.

  3. Across at Tory Membership central, Conservative Home website, 'The Telegraph’s backfiring attack on “mutineer” MPs points to a strategic problem for Conservatives' by its editor Mark Wallace suggests all is not well for Movement Conservatism:

    "Firing up the Outrage Bus, as the papers are doing, no doubt appeals to the gut instincts of a sizeable share of their core readership, and in this instance doing that won out over the urge to actually succeed. It might be that this is a deliberate choice – a strategy of actively prioritising short-term reader satisfaction over long-term political success – but the blunt alternative is that there might not be anybody putting that much thought into it from a strategic perspective at all.

    Unfortunately, this is also a symptom of declining power. There’s still a great deal of life in the giants of Fleet Street, but their influence is no longer as overwhelming and uncontested as it once was. One traditional response to a shrinking voice is to increase the shrillness of one’s pronouncements."

    Also, The Telegraph under the ownership of the Brothers Ritz was always intended to go after the Daily Mail readership; it no longer aspires to be a broadsheet.

  4. It seems like the short answer would be for 100,000 or so center right moderates to join the Conservative party.

    1. This is the most sensible comment I've seen in ages.

  5. Simon
    thanks. Its a lot simpler than my own analysis which was compiled over the past few days
    You get a few honourable mentions


  6. This is really interesting - as in, spot-on. What it illustrates is the tension between grassroots intra-party democracy and parliamentary democracy. The former implies that leaders must be accountable and beholden to their parties' mass membership bases, latter (the formal constitutional position of the UK) implies that parliamentarians are ultimately accountable to their voters - a quite different base. RT McKenzie pointed this out in his classic work on British political parties in the 1950s, and the point is really coming to bear upon the workings of British politics now.

  7. "the will of the people"

    How did this biblical phrase become the default way of describing the referendum result ?

    1. It's just become a cliche, like 'an act of self-harm', now upgraded to the even more impressive 'an act of self-mutilation'

    2. Or even "a scream of incoherent rage" according to Fintan O'Toole. Don't think he'd say the same about Scottish independence or a united Ireland though, regardless of the even worse economic danger... hmm.

  8. It's a funny old world.
    When UKIP was campaigning to leave the EU, the idea seemed ridiculous - they only ever had 1 MP.
    However, a previously sensible PM put the question out there, and suddenly is seems like a reasonable option.
    Anyway, don't worry. EU membership doesn't really matter.

    1. If David Cameron had paid attention to the likes of SW-L, he wouldn't have done austerity, and would have allowed the economy to grow. Then if he got re-elected he would have won the referendum since fewer people would be unhappy and looking for some economic relief by cutting Brussels red tape / stopping immigration which they have been encouraged to think would be good for the economy. After all, fiscal stimulus had been taken off the agenda by both parties ("but the national debt!")

  9. That is why you don't have a referendum as poorly constructed as that one was. It lead towards major disorganization afterwards as different tribal elements wanted different things.

    The UK is not looking good as a national unit. It may dissolve. Now, who would want that dissolvement...........Simon, that is your question you need to ask.

  10. In the 2017 general election, about 1.4 million Conservative votes came from readers of "The Sun" and around 2.5 million from readers of the "Daily Mail".
    Those figures only relate to readers buying the dead-wood version of the newspaper and not the online version.
    I vaguely remember some research done by, I think, the City University that visitors to tabloid newspaper websites spend around 30 seconds on them before moving onto another website.

  11. "The referendum vote itself was quite something: people voting to make themselves poorer than they might otherwise be".

    Those last five words are crucial.

    I also view Brexit as an economic own goal and would prefer it abandoned, but without persistent outright falls in living standards I don't think the public in aggregate will regret Brexit.

    Isn't the Brexit-induced fall in the pound already hurting living standards? Yes, but we look to be through the worst. There's a good chance real wages will be rising again ahead of the UK's departure in March 2019. And if not, there's always the conflation with austerity to provide cover for Brexit woes. (That and the it's-Remainers-talking-us-down or it's-the-evil-EU accusations.)


    1. The interruptions to smooth business with Europe hasn't begun yet, and it will be especially bad if there is a hard Brexit. It could tip us back into recession, especially since current growth is weak. We really can't afford that politically or economically, which is why Remain was the sensible choice

    2. Seems I may have jumped the gun. As if on cue:

      The endless living squeeze -

      I would like to think the OBR projection will be enough to prompt a Brexit rethink, but the likes of the Mail and Express will howl, suppress and smear to avoid it. I wish more MPs (of whatever hue) would stand up to them.


  12. The same point can be made about the Republican Party in the USA.

  13. "What we are seeing in the UK right now is quite incredible. The referendum vote itself was quite something: people voting to make themselves poorer than they might otherwise be for some ill-defined notion of control or because of myths about immigration. But what has happened subsequently is even more extraordinary."

    This view of life forgets a number of things, things change over time and are not static, therefore to predict staying in the EU is our only salvation is to disregard the history of our membership in the EU and to believe that no other alternative exists. Which is a false premise.

    We must first recognise that that the Tories are in power, their view is a purely Laissz Faire Neo-Liberal solution that has already collapsed the world economy. To assume they will always remain in power would be to accept Britain will decline economically and that people will just sit back and let it happen, that is something I don't believe will happen. The longer time goes on the more people become aware of the transfer of power and wealth to the few as a deliberate act perpetrated by these Tories and their fellow compatriots throughout Europe.

    In truth, the EU debate is a total distraction from what is happening throughout the whole world, and can be summed up in a nutshell by Bernie Sanders who made this speech to Congress in 2011, saying "the the 1% were at war with its own people".

    To understand what this forthright politician is saying is the gap between rich and poor has been a process that has been under way since the 1970s, and is rapidly accelerating to its conclusion as we speak.
    Nothing that is happening is just by chance, the so called Brexit chaos is part of that deliberate ploy because whilst we spend time and effort laughing supiriorly at these clowns that call themselves politicians, they are rapidly dismantling the state and selling the ground from beneath our feet, and handing that wealth and power over to the very people that are behind the whole strategy.

    I believe it is way beyond time that all thinking people concentrate on what these Neo-Liberal politicians have been doing for over forty years now, the EU is absolutely no different to what this government is doing and is actually winding down all the same advantages in legislation that was gained through the Keynesian period and up until the Maasrticht treaty, where the Neo-Liberal agenda has started to reverse those social gains.

    What we face, both in Europe and in this country is the total rejection of democracy in favour of the new world order that dictates what ordinary peoples standard of living will be, governed by a feral elite that will impose its will by force unless we all wake up a bit quickly. Just look how they treated Greece, whilst bailing out corrupt European Banks with billions of QE.

    We are a sovereign country with its own sovereign currency, we do not have to borrow our own money from anyone or anywhere, unlike the Greeks and they have paid an unnecessary price so that their country's assets could be stripped, and that is going on here as we speak. Look at the wording in the Naylor report, they even spell it out for you, knowing most will never read it.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.