If the left didn’t find a constructive policy to tackle Britain’s economic problems at root, Leonard Woolf warned in the Political Quarterly in autumn 1931, the right would go on ‘triumphing until it has created conditions which almost inevitably result in violent revolution’. A global slump, soaring unemployment and a run on the pound had brought about the resignation of Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Cabinet in August, swiftly followed by the formation of the emergency, cross-party National Government, which immediately pushed massive spending cuts through Parliament.
Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, thought the summer crisis had exposed the realities of class conflict and shoved a ticking bomb under the country’s representative traditions: ‘Democracy,’ he wrote, ‘is a system which can only work while essentials are not in dispute.’ With the interests of finance capital and ordinary wage-earners so visibly at odds, could such agreement be safely assumed any more? G. Lowes Dickinson agreed that capitalism’s days were numbered; the question was whether Britain would ‘relapse into dictatorship’ or build a socialist commonwealth ‘through our traditional method of co-operation and common sense’.
But capitalism and liberal democracy muddled through. The National Government’s position was stabilised by its sweeping victory at the polls at the end of October, after which it steadied the markets by making further cuts and taking sterling off gold. A system of imperial protection, to replace Britain’s historic commitment to free trade, followed in 1932. Dominated by Tories, the National Government quickly solidified into an anti-socialist front, but it wasn’t a fascist dictatorship.
Life was undoubtedly grim for the long-term unemployed, but for the more fortunate the 1930s was a time of rising living standards, dancehalls and holidays with pay. As Martin noted, in everyday life ‘the division of interests between investors and workers is seldom clear cut.’ Britain’s ideological landscape, so brilliantly illuminated for a few months in 1931, became befogged by in-fighting on the left, piecemeal social measures from the right and new threats abroad with the rise of fascism in Europe.
Will things go the same way – from crisis to relative political normalcy – in post-referendum Britain? As in 1931, the EU vote of June 2016 seemed momentarily to have crystallised the existence of two political classes – leavers and remainers – whose views of the world, and Britain's place in it, were fundamentally in conflict. Some observers interpreted the result as final proof of a major realignment of British politics that had been underway for years, with the old left-right spectrum giving ground to the politics of national identity and globalisation. For David Runciman, the cleavage ran between ‘people who can imagine a viable future for themselves in a networked world, and those who cannot’. Pro-Brexit populists framed it more baldly as a struggle between ‘liberal metropolitan elites’ and ‘decent people’ or, cruder still, between ‘remoaners’ and the rest.
The adhesive strength of these new political labels, their power to determine the shape of British politics in the coming years, is difficult to judge. As in 1931, we may fall back into our previous grooves, arguing about the NHS, Southern Rail and the shortage of affordable housing. There are signs that this is happening already, as Remainers lick their wounds and accept that, one way or another, Britain is leaving the European Union. For Labour, split between Leave voters and Remainers, changing the conversation may in the long run be the only route back to electability.
But then again, Brexit may provide the prism through which our politics are refracted for many years to come. Could the emotional communities forged in June – joyous exhilaration among Leavers, dumbfounded despair among Remainers – form the basis of deeper solidarities around which party politics will have to be recast?
The Brexit vote has transformed the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Recruiting Remainers in droves and surging at by-elections, the party appears liberated from its troubled recent history. Nick Clegg has experienced something of a political rebirth, his newfound status as figurehead for aggrieved Remainers apparently wiping away the sins he committed as David Cameron’s deputy.
For now, Theresa May’s Conservative Party is confidently riding the political wave unleashed by Brexit. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling barely caused a wobble, as the prime minister reiterated her intent to push the bill to trigger Article 50 through Parliament by the end of March.
But Labour is in danger of being pulled under. The events of summer 1931 occupy a dark place in the collective memory of the left because they destroyed Labour’s credibility in government and locked it out of power for the rest of the decade. Bleaker still was the fate of the Liberals, who split three ways and became electorally irrelevant until the 1970s. Will this be Labour’s future, or will a progressive alliance with the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and Greens offer a way out? Without a more proportional electoral system, or a Labour leader prepared to make political compromises and work across party lines, such a course seems unlikely. Yet given the fractured state of party politics, power-sharing coalitions may present the best or only hope for the left and centre-left to wrest power from the Conservatives, whose position is currently unassailable.
If Woolf and his colleagues underestimated the resilience of Britain’s messy, centrist political culture, it is possible we overestimate it now. Labour intellectuals weren’t the only ones to make false predictions in the 1930s. National Government leaders described a charismatic strong man recently installed in a major western nation-state as someone with whom they could do business. By September 1939, Britain was at war. The political fallout from Brexit may turn out to be far less important than anyone currently imagines.