Modern British politics is usually dated to either 1945 or 1979, both years symbolising generational resets that created new consensuses in British politics. As Tim Oliver (University of Loughborough) explains, 2016 is the new year by which British politics is dated. But instead of a new consensus, post-2016 Britain faces a generation of constraining dissensus.
The Conservative party leadership race, and Boris Johnson’s many foibles, has taken some attention away from Brexit. But as with so much in British life today, Brexit lurks in the background. The leadership race itself shows how Brexit has consumed, confounded and humiliated Britain’s political class. No wonder that the idea of suspending parliament to allow a no-deal Brexit is being taken as a serious idea by some in the Conservative party. They hope a British exit will allow their party, parliament and the country to move on.
But Britain is not going to move on. British politicians and public are still coming to terms with a generational reset of British politics triggered by the 2016 vote. Hopes a no-deal exit or some new withdrawal deal can end the bickering and divisions are as deluded as hopes a second referendum victory for Remain can return life to some pre-June 2016 norm. 2016 is becoming the year by which modern British politics is dated and defined. Traditionally 1945 and then 1979 were the years by which British politics was dated. But instead of some new political consensus emerging, as happened after 1945 and 1979, post-2016 Britain faces a generation of dissensus and all the constraints and obstacles that flow from that.
For Britain, 1945 was not only the end of the Second World War. It was also the year Winston Churchill, for all he had done to lead the country in its finest hour, was thrown out of office by a landslide victory for the Labour party. Clement Attlee’s Labour government set about building a ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state and a mixed economy. Management of Britain’s relative decline became the norm for a post-war retreat from empire while trying to hold on to global status through such things as the acquisition of an atomic bomb.
In 1979 that consensus was swept aside by Margaret Thatcher. The power of the market replaced the power of the state. Relative decline was given short shrift by the Iron Lady. Her successors up to David Cameron lived in her shadow as those before her had lived in that of Attlee.
The consensuses following 1945 and 1979 were, of course, the product of changes long in the pipeline and connected to wider international trends. Whether it was the Great Depression or the collapse of Bretton Woods, each new consensus reflected problems from the previous system. Nor were they complete revolutions or entirely accepted. Despite Thatcher’s efforts, state spending remains high and British relative decline very real. What few dispute is that the Thatcher and Attlee governments set the political weather for the following generation. It’s why their statues stand in the lobby of the House of Commons alongside those of Churchill and Lloyd George, the other two defining – and wartime – prime ministers of 20th century British politics.
Sixteen years into the 21st century and Britain once again faces a reset of its politics. Far from leading to a period of consensus, however, it’s likely Britain is now entering a generation of dissensus. It’s long been clear that the referendum was about more than UK-EU relations. Through the voting for Remain or Leave the British people voted on a range of issues and were motivated by more than just relations with Brussels.
In the political uncertainty that has reigned since the vote, politicians, not least Theresa May, have not only tried to find a way of withdrawing Britain from the EU. She tried to use Brexit as a means to affect a wider change to Britain’s political economy, identity, constitution and place in the world. That May failed and that no other political or ideological consensus has prevailed reflects the tumultuous political weather of the post-2016 consensus. Instead of one narrative or ideological agenda, Britain’s politics, society, economics, constitution, unity and place in the world are now deeply contested.
Such divisions are hardly new. The referendum and the post-referendum politics, however, have combined them, polarised opinion and forced the UK to face difficult choices it has long put off. It means successive prime ministers – whether Boris Johnson now or somebody else such as Jeremy Corbyn – will be unable to create a new consensus. Instead of a new consensus, future governments will be faced by a period of dissensus, and thanks to all the divisions it will be a constraining dissensus at that.
The idea of a ‘constraining dissensus’ has been applied to the EU itself. The emergence over the past thirty years of multiple forms of Euroscepticism have left the EU struggling to integrate in ways it once did when a more permissive consensus about integration prevailed amongst the EU’s citizens and politicians. The UK faces something of a similar fate. Even the unity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is contested. A recent survey showed a majority of Conservative party members willing to accept Scotland and Northern Ireland’s departure from the UK as the price worth paying for an EU exit.
Equally fraught divisions over immigration, identity politics, the economy, the constitution, relations between the USA and Europe and much more now constrain Britain’s politicians, political parties and parliament. Add into the mix a constitutional setup thrown into a state of unprecedented flux and it becomes clear that even a large majority for one party in the House of Commons is unlikely to allow a prime minister or single party to set the agenda.
Much like the EU itself then, Britain’s politics for at least a generation is set to be one of ambivalence and division.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. This article also appeared on the Clingendael blog. Image © Flickr / BackBoris2012Campaign.
Dr Tim Oliver is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London.