The 2016 Brexit Referendum in the UK was used by Donald Trump throughout the latter stages of his campaign to indicate that if Brexit could happen in Britain – a Trump victory could happen in the US. This was one of many unique techniques that Donald Trump used in his successful political movement that has unleashed a wave of right-populist political sentiment in the US that took many of the more moderate members of his own party by surprise. This itself has helped to revive a populist liberal left in the US (sometimes confusingly called socialist left) as a reaction to Trump.
In Britain, it can be said that in the wake of the extreme unpopularity of the current government led by the managerial and uninspiring Theresa May, a wave of populism has been unleashed by the protracted Brexit process. This however only tells part of the story as unlike in the US where Trump populism won an election, thus giving rise to an equal and opposite left-liberal populism, in Britain several waves of populism have come to the forefront of the political scene. Crucially the inability of these competing, conflicting and often mutually confrontational populisms to unite has allowed a deeply unpopular government to remain in power, even at a time when many of its erstwhile supporters want a change in political leadership.
To understand the curious problem of Britain’s new populist forces, one can look to Italy where a very British style agreement between two major parties to form a cohesive government. Ironically, Italy’s new political landscape looks far more functional than the half dozen or more competing ideologies of the post-Brexit political scene in Britain, which ironically is almost Italian in terms of its overwhelming nature, its confused and confusing composition and its inability to unite in order to form a credible and electable political force.
During this year’s parliamentary elections in Italy, support for the right-populist Lega Nord and the left-populist Five Star Movement has led to a situation wherein the two main populations forces that dominated the vote have formed a coalition that does not rely on establishment parties let alone the small parties that most previous modern Italian governments have had to rely in order to form a majority governing coalition.
The result of the left-right populist unity underpinning the new government has transformed Italian party politics from a bewildering group of traditional centre-left and centre-right parties and their small issue based or regional politics based allies all competing for power into a more straightforward populist vs. traditionalist party political spectrum. In this sense, while the trappings of multil-party and often chaotic Italian electioneering will certainly remain for years to come, if the current government is successful, Italy will be transformed for the foreseeable future into a pseudo-two party state where major populist groupings will compete during future elections against the old re-grouped established parties.
By contrast, post-1945 UK politics has been a de-facto two party system where a traditional centre-right Conservative party has competed with a centre-left Labour party decade upon decade with third forces only rarely playing anything other than an insignificant role. While many cite the rise of Margaret Thatcher as a revolutionary force in UK politics, while her government certainly transformed a centrist welfare state economy into an increasingly de-regulated neo-liberal economy, she did not change the two party system which continued to exist long after her resignation in 1990. Likewise, in turning the Labour party into a kind of “Conservative party with liberal social characteristics”, Tony Blair also did not change the two party system, he merely adopted many of Thatcher’s economic and foreign policies and combined them with traditional centre-left post-modern social policies.
In this sense, Thatcher and Blair did in Britain what Silvio Berlusconi did in Italy – they strengthened their own electoral base thus forcing all opposition parties to re-think their electoral strategy but they did not change the fundamental two party system in Britain any more than Berlusconi changed Italy’s multi-party system – he merely stabilised it compared to his less organised predecessors.
In Britain thought it has been Brexit far more than Thatcher or Blair that has changed the very conception of Britain’s long familiar two party system. One of the oddities of Brexit is that it was a proposal for a drastic changed to Britain’s so-called “unwritten constitution” and yet it was proposed by someone who vigorously campaigned against it – David Cameron. This is almost unheard of in geopolitics as from Turkey to The Philippines, recent proposals for constitutional change have been proposed by those who advocate for such changes. Because of this, while Turkey’s President Erdogan had a clear plan to implement his proposed constitutional changes after 2017 and while at present, Philippine President Duterte is working on finalising his draft constitutional change proposals before going to the nation, David Cameron did not actually give his civil service any form of Brexit plan because he campaigned to retain the status quo which self-evidently requires no new plan. Furthermore, Cameron arrogantly thought his victory over a process he himself instigated would be assured.
Because of this, rather than negotiate with the European Union on a long agreed plan, Britain is negotiating with itself as to what it wants from Brexit while simultaneously negotiating with a European Union that has long known what it wants – either a Norway style agreement between London and Brussels within the frame work of the European Free Trade Association or no Brexit at all.
The result of a parallel internal and external negotiation has led to the rise of many populist factions within Britain ranging from the so-called alt-right, to a revived traditional far right with 21st century characteristics, a hard socialist left that is pro-Brexit and a left that is against Brexit but nevertheless gets to pretend and be populist because of the fact that the incumbent government appears not to stand for anything. Making matters all the more strange, centrist factions displeased with the neo-socialist opposition leadership and the “we don’t stand for anything” government are now able to paint themselves as populist roo as the former insiders who are now political outsiders in a figurative sense continue to campaign for a new anti-Brexit vote called “the people’s vote”. Thus, one sees that even long time elite centrists have adopted the language and pseudo-outsider techniques of populism in the wake of a seemingly never ending Brexit process.
The result has been the prolonged existence of a government that was on life support from the moment it formed as none of the new competing populist movements are able to reconcile with one another in the way that Italy’s comparatively straight forward right and left populist parties were able to do.
Taken in totality, Britain’s political opposition both within and outside of the current parliament is far stronger than the government. Nevertheless, the current government remains in power in spite of its lack of popularity. While the current UK government has to fight internal discord all while negotiating with Brussels, all of the many competing populist opposition forces are fighting one another in a multi-sided war for the heart of UK populism. Thus far, no clear populist winner has emerged from the kind of chaos which prohibited populist forces in Italy from taking centre state until this year.
In this sense, in its push to become less European, Britain’s political atmosphere has become more like the Italy of the late 20th century, while Italy’s de-facto two party mentality is now far more akin to the pre-Brexit Britain where politics was largely a choice between ‘column A’ and column B’.