What will happen now?

Glen Newey

In January I outlined a nine-stage process by which David Cameron's premiership could end within the year. The referendum's timing excepted, that has turned out much as predicted. Cameron's translation from PM to dogmeat is complete. The referendum campaign has been a Conservative leadership primary, and the blond populist has come out top dog.

A backlash against the Leavers will doubtless follow, as it would have against the Remainers had they won. As I wrote the other day, Leave's campaign has certainly been cynical and manipulative, but so has Remain's. Its pitch has been stolidly conservative with a small(ish) 'c', fought in terms that recall Baldwin's 'Safety First' election campaign in 1929. Remain did nothing to cater for those who aren't doing well, who see little or no benefit in Britain's EU membership. Scaremongering works least well on people for whom things are already crap, especially coming from those who have made things that way.

Jeremy Corbyn will get blamed for not having broken a lance, in fact barely a cocktail stick, on Remain's behalf. But his stance made good political sense, as well as being born of sincere lack of conviction. The EU is a technocratic capitalist club. Remain had no convincing story, in fact no story at all, about how it can benefit unskilled and semi-skilled workers and the long-term unemployed, or how the structural tensions between its central institutions and democracy could be resolved. From the Labour leadership's standpoint it made and makes good sense to lie low while the Tories slugs the daylights out of each other. Liberal Remainers' fancy that the EU is a benign despotism friendly to worker and refugee alike has proven remarkably resilient to the facts.

What will happen now? Precise predictions at this stage would be rash. The immediate upshot has already been position-staking by interest groups, notably from Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which backed Remain in the poll. Sinn Fein has already called for a referendum on sovereignty. It's unlikely that Nicola Sturgeon will be too quick to follow suit on Scotland's behalf, first because in the short term the oil price collapse undermines an independent Scotland's viability, and because a Scexit from the UK won't quickly lead to Scotland's reabsorption into the EU – existing members can veto accession, and Spain (and the Commission) will be loath to bless a precedent for secession, specifically of Catalonia.

If Scotland or Northern Ireland or both do peel off, the immediate prospects are fairly grim for people in what – the term is obsolete – used to be called Labour's 'heartlands' in Rump UK. The kingdom of England and Wales would become, still more than it already is, Londonia, the capital a city-state as dominant over the rest as ancient Athens was over the surrounding demes. National politics is likely to be steered by the political wing of the Faragist falange, almost certainly with Johnson as premier. Its payroll vote skewed the Tory parliamentary party's public stance in the referendum towards Remain; now it's free to become what it is, an English nationalist party figureheaded by Johnson. Europhile Tories will be isolated. It's not impossible that a major reconfiguration will occur, as happened with the Peelite Tories after Corn Law Repeal in 1846 or with anti-coupon liberals after the 1918 election, which eventually put paid to the Liberals as a single party of government.

A civil cold war in Britain has been waged between Europhiles and Europhobes since the 1990s or earlier. Civil wars have a habit of continuing indefinitely, as T.S. Eliot observed in a talk about Milton in 1947. The question W.H. Auden put about the country's future the same year is relevant now, but still admits of more than one answer. Auden asked if the late imperial isle could be more than

A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now?


  • 24 June 2016 at 3:35pm
    Graucho says:
    The first order of the day for the labour party is to replace Jeremy Corbyn with Gisela Stuart as leader. Winning national campaigns is item number one in the job description, she has proven she knows how it's done. Kept her head, argued calmy without descending to personal abuse and was much more in touch with labour's core support than the current leadership. If a snap election is called the Tory line will be that Labour will resile on the referendum result and only a Eurosceptic leader will kill that one.

    • 25 June 2016 at 11:37pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Graucho
      Lord Ashcroft's polling suggests 62% of Labour voters chose Remain.

      Why would Labour want a leader who favoured Brexit and who is also a member of the CIA funded neoconservative think tank The Henry Jackson Society?

    • 26 June 2016 at 2:46pm
      Graucho says: @ Stu Bry
      Agreed it will never happen. That said, Labour desperately needs a leader who can win the next election. As events unfold it appears that the parliamentary party think it isn't Jeremy Corbyn, so who is it ? Wasn't aware of the Henry Jackson connection, thanks for that, it explains her firm opposition to EU membership. The remainers should be in no doubt that the Euro politicians are hell bent on creating a European super state and have no compunction about finessing it past their electorates and against their will. If Lord Ashcroft's polling is accurate, then Thursday's result implies that about 58% of non Labour voters chose leave (Labour's poll share being about 30%). Labour has to win over a substantial proportion of these leavers if it has to have a hope of forming the next government.

  • 24 June 2016 at 4:35pm
    DJL says:
    The defence of Jeremy Corbyn in the third paragraph is really astonishing. No-one denies that the EU is a capitalist club, but so is the UK, and a worse one at that. The general tenor in the EU is much more social democratic than it is in the UK, as evidenced by the great many regulations the EU has put in place over the years, some of which very important indeed and which we can wave goodbye once we are out of the EU. Corbyn may well be right to say that it was the dispossessed who voted for Brexit yesterday, but their plight is due to British policies, not necessarily European ones.

    But that is all by the by, and that's precisely the point I want to make here. The crux of the matter is that this referendum was the result of the ascension of UKIP, the main point of contention has always been immigration (both in this referendum and for UKIP), and the choice was between a simple IN or OUT. Given the terms of engagement, then, Corbyn should have campaigned much stronger for the Remain vote. I have qualms regarding the EU too - a great many, in fact - but I could recognise what the most important issue was, and adjusted accordingly.

    It is simply disingenuous (or worse, ingenuous) to claim that Corbyn's tactics made perfect political sense - it was simply misguided and obtuse, the final result a disaster. Since Newey likes to make predictions, I hope he won't be too surprised when we see Corbyn back to the backbenches - or leading a small band of bitter old-timers.

    • 25 June 2016 at 4:27am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ DJL
      I don't know whether Corbyn's approach to the referendum was the result of calculating cynicism or sheer discombobulation, but it seems to me he could have done a lot worse. By declining to break a sweat for the Remain camp - much of which was almost as repellent as its opponents - he may have escaped the fate of David Cameron (for the moment, anyway).

      Yet it is curious to observe the contortions of Corbyn's critics: Corbyn is unelectable, he is out of touch, he doesn't understand the British public. Yet when he appears to be on the side of the majority of British voters (or, at least, insufficiently hostile to them) he is misguided and obtuse.

      I think Corbyn was canny on this one, even if only by accident. All those English seats that we are told Labour has to win next time reliably voted for Brexit. I still think it's extremely unlikely that Corbyn will ever be PM, of course, but his decision to maintain a safe distance from the Remain campaign hints at political instincts that might not be as bad as some people think.

    • 25 June 2016 at 9:22am
      DJL says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      I'm not a Corbyn critic at all, even though I'm criticising his approach to this particular issue - a distinction you might want to keep in mind.

      Similarly, I said HIS TACTICS in this referendum were misguided and obtuse, not that he was in general. And that certainly has nothing to do with whether or not he is on the side of the majority of British voters, which I would contest in the particular case of this referendum. What majority is that, after all? The 51.8% who seemed to vote mostly against perceived out-of-control immigration? Can anyone honestly think he's in THAT camp? Did he not campaign and vote to Remain?

      Corbyn is right to say that it was the worst-off who voted for Brexit, but this referendum was not about the underlying reasons for their situation, nor was it about the intricacies of the EU. That's the point I made in my comment, which I shall not repeat. I suggest you read properly before replying to comments - and to not take words out of context to make your point.

    • 26 June 2016 at 12:19am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ DJL
      Oh drop the condescension for just a moment if you're able. I did read your comment - I just think it's rubbish. You have decided that "the main point of contention" in the referendum was "always" immigration. You have also decided that it is an index of the ascension of UKIP, and that on the basis of this Labour should have campaigned hard for Remain (presumably on the basis that Nigel Farage's enemy must necessarily be Labour's friend). Both claims are largely unsupported by evidence. UKIP won 12.7% of the vote at the last election. Recent polls (which tend to underestimate the party) put UKIP's support around 17-20%. Whatever the reasons for this referendum - and I think it has a lot more to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party than with the rise of the 'kippers - UKIP's virtual monopolisation of the Leave message has clearly done them plenty of favours. The ascent of UKIP is in large part a result of the way this campaign has been waged, not a cause of it.

      Moreover, a poll of voters at the beginning of the month found that less than a third regarded immigration as the most important issue at stake in the referendum. Clearly it's not all about "out-of-control immigration,"as you appear to believe, and there have always been more important issues at play for the left (broadly defined) than just giving Farage one in the eye. The failure of the Remain camp to even try to understand the complex reasons why many British people who are not slavering xenophobes or natural UKIP fans - including 37% of Labour voters - decided to turn their backs on the EU goes a long way to explain their defeat. An obsession with making this about Farage and about the values he supposedly represents has backfired dramatically for Remain. Unfortunately they don't seem to have learned anything from the experience.

    • 26 June 2016 at 5:51pm
      DJL says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      A bit rich to refer to my comment as rubbish, given that so far you have failed to engage with it. All you have been doing is ascribing to me rather stupid views that I have not even hinted at - indeed, that I do not hold at all. That was the tenor of your first response, and hence my reply, which was nothing but a short correction of your misunderstanding. Your latest comment is more of the same, so I will drop the condescension when you learn to read properly and stop quoting and citing studies/polls selectively, thank you very much.

      More misunderstandings:

      I can admit that the referendum was, in part, the result of the internal politics of the Conservative Party, but THAT is not independent of the rise of UKIP - to believe otherwise is to nitpick (how many UKIP members/supporters are former Tories?). In any case, I didn't suggest, mainly because I didn't say it, that the ascent of UKIP was the ONLY cause of the referendum, but I do think it was the main one (combined with, or being part of, the internal dynamics of the Tory party that you mention). Didn't UKIP actually win the last European elections, after all? Unsurprisingly, considering your penchant for nitpicking, you only mention UKIP's result at the last general election (in addition to unreferenced polls regarding their popular support), but in the latter there are many more issues to discuss and consider than at European elections - or at least a general election involves issues that are not directly relevant in European elections. Surely the results of the European elections are more relevant when discussing the role of UKIP in getting this referendum - didn't the Tories promise the referendum before the general election? And I remind you that at the time this was viewed as a tactic to not lose more votes to UKIP.

      I also didn't suggest, again, because I didn't say it, that this referendum was all about Farage or UKIP - you really must stop making so many assumptions, you are terrible at it. All I said is that the main point of contention during the campaign, or at least the issue that was most discussed and arose most discussion, was immigration. Nothing to do with Farage or UKIP per se. The fact that a poll a month ago suggested that few voters thought immigration to be the main issue changes nothing - what, voters do not change their views, or focus, DURING the campaign? The results of a month-old poll are certainly no guide for how people voted on the day, and even less for what in the end they regarded as the most important issue.

      Finally, I don't doubt that the votes of many people were the result of complex reasons, my point was rather narrow and independent of that - namely, that immigration BECAME the central issue in the campaign (not the only one, of course, despite the upgrading you offer from the first to the second paragraph of your comment), with very ugly undertones, and that on that basis alone Corbyn should have pressed his very good points regarding the benefits the EU brings in in relation to workers rights, justice, and the environment much more. I see no reason to change my views on Corbyn's tactics, contra Newey (the original target), and you certainly haven't provided any.

  • 25 June 2016 at 4:43am
    Joe Morison says:
    I don't understand why the EU making it easy for Scotland to stay in after Scexit would encourage secession. Surely, the opposite. The message to countries considering it would be: look at the UK, they voted to leave and it split their country apart; if you vote to leave, prepare for the same. Nationalist politicians might want to rule their countries free of the EU, but would be less keen if that meant smaller nations for them to govern.

    • 25 June 2016 at 11:45pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Joe Morison
      There are Spanish elections this weekend and the PP may not even hold onto power never mind be in a position to dictate EU accession.

      Even if the PP are in power i'm not sure that blocking Scotland joining the EU would benefit them politically. It would harm the reputation of the EU and enflame Catalonia further.

  • 29 June 2016 at 12:50pm
    monthofsundays says:
    This referendum feels to have provided us with the most representative "selfie" of Great Britain in some time and it shows a gulf between Westminster and the heartland that suggests a re-alignment is urgently required. And one that amounts to more than mere Parliamentary back-room tinkering.

    Because to turn to the electorate any time soon with patched up versions of more or less the parties that contested the last national elections would risk an unrepresentative farce, as well as a potential whitewash for nationalist/libertarian neocons.

    To allow the current vacuum to be filled by radicals of either stripe will not do and not acting will see the more self-serving, whip-loving Tories recalibrate faster than Sajid Javid can say "Yes, sir" to a new right-wing leadership.

    So, after preaching from both sides of the aisle for decades that only a centrist moderate force can govern this country effectively, is it not about time that our politicians offered the electorate this mythical beast once and for all?

    Cameron would be better off letting Corbyn have what is HIS party by right, acknowledge that his own position within the Tories is done and dusted, respect the wishes of the voters and stop remaining. He may not want to admit it but he was both more comfortable and better off in Coalition with Clegg and so was the whole country.

    I would certainly feel less apprehensive knowing the three parties contesting the next elections would be a version of Johnson Tories, Corbyn Labourites but for there to be between them a New British Centre Party unto which would cross the pragmatists from both former formations.

    Rather like the England football team, we need an interim solution, and in my dream scenario the pragmatists on both sides would simply cross the floor of the House to the LibDems tomorrow, overwhelm it and rename it.

    I am aware this pipe-dream has no more chance of manifesting than the negotiations by the UK to deliver EU changes to their rules on free movement -- but I recommend it just because it is more attractive.

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