You looked but turned away

Sorry to exhume the corpse of Cast (Britpop beat combo, 2nd division, m’lud), but it was the first song that came to mind today. It is here, should you wish to co-exhume it with me.

Anyhow, the populus has spoken, and has advised Her Majesty’s Government of its wish for Her Britannic Majesty’s Queendom to proceed forthwith from membership of the European Union. We’re also now down a Prime Minister, and by the end of the day possibly even a Leader of the Opposition (sorry, can’t remember who that was supposed to be) and a Chancellor of the Book of Bouncing Cheques Exchequer. Doubtless, some of you will have heard. Doubtless, some of you will have read, or uttered, a hot take or two on this momentous event. Doubtless, you will have agreed with, argued with, shaken your head or fist at any or all of those hot takes. I’m therefore, most Britannically apologetically going to utter another one.

No, don’t go away. Please don’t. It won’t be that awful. I hope.

The first thing to note is that as Jack of Kent reminds us, the referendum is advisory. It depends on the activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and already, we hear, a blonde buffoon named Boris is counselling no rush. But really, with Her Majesty’s House of Commons in the “right royal kerfuffle” it is currently in, nobody really has any mandate to do anything right now. So in a sense, although something has happened, nothing actually has, and even if the Article 50 button were to have been pushed there would be a decently long period of pointless windbaggery, useless negotiation and other stuff to go on. So we are in a position of Schrodinger’s Poker, where hands have been both dealt and not dealt and bids made and not made.

The second thing that I want to note is that it ought be no surprise to the good people of twitter that distance from the metropolis – economically and politically speaking, if not always geographically speaking – is correlated with vehemence of voting out. It ought not to be, but it seems to be. It would be nice if this led to a period of pondering, preferably accompanied by vigorous listening, with or without the lubrication provided by cups of tea, but I suspect that the metropolis knows its mind and is well versed in the art of projecting motives. Hence, Pre-Brexit, the North, for instance, was a victim of NeoLiberalism™ and Post-Brexit a hotbed of racialism, fascism and every other nastyism.

But the third point is where I want to dwell- and that is that this is emblematic of two things. First of all, the UK has changed party system, and second, a realignment is still going on.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Giovanni Sartori wrote about party systems contrasting three major types found in Europe (and other places – one of his examples was Allende’s Chile). Bipartite systems, like the British one, had two monolithic parties contending against one another. Sometimes the result was consensus, sometimes discord, but the result was a middle ground that tended to shift over time. However, most of Europe, largely because of the PR systems prevalent, experienced either a multipartite system that was characterised by moderate pluralism or by polarised pluralism. The former tended to produced moderate centrists governments, the latter political chaos. Sartori found the polarised pluralist system in amongst other cases, the French fourth republic, Weimar Germany, Allende’s Chile and Italy during the anni di piombo. A polarised pluralism system (I’m taking this from Ivo Daalder in West European Politics 1983 ) has four characteristics:

  1. A number of relevant parties (five-ish plus). Of most importance is that some of them are anti-system parties, with blackmail potential, i.e the ability to blackmail other parties into doing their bidding.
  2. A high degree of ideological stretching – the polarisation. This means a low level of consensus amongst parties, so it’s hard to find middle grounds between them.
  3. More than one or two poles in the system.
  4. The above three characteristics leading to centrifugal drives – that is, parties trying to inhabit space on the wings and not in the centre.

Any of that starting to look like Britain in 2016? In essence, the great monolithic parties that head butted each other over the post war period to 1979, became centrifugal in the 1980s, realigned around a different consensus post 1997 and finally, fractured in the noughties and teens, leading to a position, today, that looks a lot like Sartori’s recipe for chaos where, to nick a bit of Yeats, the centre cannot hold.

And that’s where we are, today. I’m pretty sure that once we start asking questions, and more importantly listening to answers, we’ll find that it all seems so obvious. But that brings up the second point – what’s the realignment about, then?

Ok. Here goes.

In order to build change, you need to assemble a very broad based consensus for that change, which means that you need to take enough people along with you to achieve that change. Now, if you keep insisting, centrifugally, on some set of core values that alienate people along the way, you lose the broad base of that coalition. That’s what Blair and Brown did over the course of their governments (Cameron and Clegg never appealed to those voters and didn’t really care). The result was in some ways good – yep, I support gay marriage among other great endeavours of the period- , and in some ways terrible – Iraq, the licensing of austerity because people lost faith in Blair-Brownism. But mainly, people who were outside the narrowing consensus of the period felt left out, and left behind economically. That’s a combination that’s not going to draw people back into your fold. It’s also no accident that this period coincided with many  British people feeling the narrowing of the class background of our political and governing classes and the failure of the social elevator. In short, government became something that was done to us, rather than a process we participated in. And eventually, the political classes, smiled at us, paid us and passed us, but quite forgot. And then, when people spoke – they didn’t know how to listen, because they were hearing objects, not people speaking.

Sartori thought that his analysis led, ineluctably, to Italy falling apart. It didn’t quite happen that way, largely because of the magic of transformismo and the ability of politicians to do deals that we may not have predicted in advance of the event. In Britain, now, the need is to actually engage, not isolate, and find a centre that draws in the excluded. It’s a shame indeed that the dealignment of Britain has found its expression in something like the EU vote – largely because it makes it easy to simply project racism onto people who simply feel they have no say. But, the dealignment has to be confronted. In the short term, it will mean all sides having to readjust their perspectives and settle more for what they can get to hold a coalition together. That’s the really big challenge, and irrespective of Eurovotism, it’s the one people are going to have to cross.

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