Brexit: a political earthquake in the UK

Brexit: a political earthquake in the UK

The uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote leaves political parties, in varying states of flux. A new Scottish referendum may result as the structural flaws of British democracy are laid bare.

The shock outcome of the Brexit referendum has left an array of questions and possibilities. Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation was the first of many high-profile changes. The future leadership and direction of the Conservative Party going into exit negotiations with the EU will come under intense scrutiny.

Likewise the Labour Party appeared listless during the campaign under Jeremy Corbyn. Labour backbenchers have already tabled a no-confidence motion in their leader, although this is likely to be thwarted so long as the core members overwhelmingly back the veteran leftist. How both parties come together, or fracture, over the coming months will decide much of the UK’s political landscape going forward. A new general election later in the year is not out of the question. Labour may hold out some hope of forming a ‘progressive alliance’ with other left wing parties but given the right wing nature of the referendum campaign, this is improbable.

Turbulence in Scotland and Northern Ireland

What of the other political parties? Devolved regions favoured remain more strongly: Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to remain in the EU. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has already announced its intention to explore a new independence referendum. Leader Nicola Sturgeon said shortly after the Brexit result that as this constituted a ‘significant and material change’ in Scotland’s circumstances, as per its manifesto commitment in May 2016’s Scottish elections, it was ‘highly likely’ the SNP would seek a new independence vote. A Scotland outside the UK could be fatal for Labour’s future chances of forming a government at Westminster.

Similarly, Sinn Féin announced that since Northern Irish citizens had voted to remain, then a poll should take place regarding a united Ireland. This, however, seems implausible due to the risk it would pose to the Good Friday Agreement and the province’s delicate power-sharing settlement. Even the Spanish government has entered the fray by suggesting that it should now have joint sovereignty over Gibraltar if the territory wants to remain part of the EU. The only part of the UK with a devolved government that voted to leave was Wales.

What’s next for the UKIP?

Devolution and democratic accountability were key underlying issues during the referendum. As devolved governments have gradually gained clout, voters in England (outside London) have clearly felt disenfranchised. Deeper English devolution plans, such as the much vaunted ‘Northern Powerhouse’, have been slow to take hold. Likewise the House of Commons has only one UKIP MP. That 53.4% of the public agreed with UKIP’s core issue suggests that both the first-past-the-post electoral system and a lack of regional and local democracy have left voters in England angry and frustrated.

As for the other smaller parties, both the pro-European Liberal Democrats and the Greens will need to take stock and realign themselves to the new political reality. And that leaves UKIP. Will the party wither on the vine now its raison d’être has been achieved? It is only too probable that Nigel Farage’s motley crew will continue in some guise.

Britain may have chosen to leave the EU but its politics appear to be following the populism bedevilling many of its European counterparts. In truth this was a result achieved by stirring up sentiments of English nationalism, as well as anger against elites, the establishment and globalisation in general. How much the actual European Union had to do with it will be much debated.

The Brexit result has shaken Britain’s – and Europe’s – political landscape. A combustible mix of populism and protectionism has won the referendum and is likely to continue in its aftermath. If the SNP moves quickly the UK could find itself further diminished. Despite the unconvincing pronouncements to the contrary Britain outside the EU is – at least in the foreseeable future – likely to be less open, and less liberal.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.