Home Politics A Fanatical Sect Has Hijacked British Politics – The New York Times

A Fanatical Sect Has Hijacked British Politics – The New York Times

21 min read

LONDON — It seems there is only one voter who matters to British politics right now: a Brexit-obsessed, 50-something white man living in rural southern England.

Why? Because a quirk of Britain’s unwritten constitution is that prime ministers are often appointed by their parties without facing general election. John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May all entered office as a result of their predecessor resigning, and then being selected by their party to take charge. Only Mr. Major was ever able to achieve any clear electoral success of his own.

Mrs. May’s resignation last month meant that, once again, a new prime minister will soon be appointed without a democratic mandate. The overwhelming favorite is Boris Johnson, the controversial journalist-turned-politician, with a lifelong weakness for causing offense and then laughing off the consequences. Unless there is a great upset, Mr. Johnson’s appointment will be announced on July 23, leaving this notoriously reckless figure to navigate Britain’s exit from the European Union, which he has committed to delivering by the Oct. 31 deadline.

Each political party has its own way of handling the process. Mr. Brown insisted that he be handed the job by Tony Blair uncontested, which is what happened in 2007. (This was described as a “gigantic fraud” at the time by none other than Mr. Johnson.) For the Conservatives, there is a complicated series of votes among the party’s members of Parliament to whittle things down to two candidates, who are then presented to the party’s members. The choice before the Conservative membership is between Mr. Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, a more trusted but unexciting man, with far less appeal to the Conservative base.

At a time of deep political and economic anxiety, the contest is producing the surreal experience of something that feels like democracy — an election campaign season, complete with televised debates and policy announcements — but without any public franchise. In this case, the “electorate” consists of a mere 160,000 people, just 0.3 percent of the national electorate, who are significantly older and richer than average. And while Mr. Johnson is hounded by questions surrounding his honesty and indiscretions — questions that might damage him in a nationwide contest — the Conservative Party membership seems to view his personality as an asset.

This is uncharted territory. Conservative Party rules have changed since Mr. Major entered office in 1990, to allow the members to have the final say. (Mrs. May’s rivals all withdrew in 2016, so the members weren’t consulted.) At first glance, a leader elected by 160,000 people might seem to have a greater democratic mandate than one appointed by their own colleagues. But as more becomes known about the unusual identities and priorities of the party members, the worry is that Britain is now in the grip of something combining the worst aspects of both oligarchy and representative democracy. It might best be described as unrepresentative democracy.

Mr. Johnson’s appeal to his base rests heavily on his enthusiastic comments about “no deal” Brexit, a kamikaze policy that would devastate Britain’s economy and produce a state of emergency for basic civil infrastructure, such as the supply of medicines. It would, however, signal a complete rejection of the authority of Brussels, which is why Mr. Johnson toys with it. The fact that a clear majority of the public opposes the idea is, for now, irrelevant.

More disturbingly, new polling suggests that Conservative Party members are now so fixated on Brexit that they believe it is worth doing at almost any cost — even if it leads to Northern Ireland or Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, “significant damage to the U.K. economy” or, most strikingly, the destruction of the Conservative Party. For the next few weeks, the most influential force in British politics is a fanatical sect.

How did Britain reach this extraordinary situation? A plausible part of the explanation is that the Conservative Party has been heavily infiltrated by supporters of Nigel Farage, the far-right populist who formerly led the U.K. Independence Party and who recently established the Brexit Party. His new party took more than a third of the vote in May’s European Parliament elections, energized by the fact that Britain did not leave the European Union on the scheduled date of March 29.

Last August, Arron Banks, a major U.K.I.P. funder over the years and backer of the xenophobic Leave.EU campaign, wrote an op-ed for The Times of London titled “Join Tories and unseat the traitor Theresa.” It’s hard to know for certain how many people have followed Mr. Banks’s advice, but Faragism has clearly penetrated the Conservative Party: 59 percent of Conservative members voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections. What’s more, the majority of Mr. Johnson’s supporters in the membership joined the party after the 2016 referendum. The party also appears to have experienced a surge in membership of around 30 percent since last summer, when confidence in Mrs. May’s Brexit deal started to plummet.

Pockets of deep resentment toward governing “elites” are a feature of most liberal democracies today, to which there are a range of possible responses. What’s different in Britain is the collision between its old-fashioned, unwritten constitution and the exceptional drama of Brexit, which has become a Trojan Horse through which nationalist, anti-establishment rage is being channeled directly into the corridors of power. For years, the case for reforming Britain’s constitution, to ensure that parties and parliament are more representative of the public, has been viewed as a somewhat academic topic, never urgent enough to demand much attention. Not any more.

For the time being, Mr. Johnson has said enough to reassure the Conservative members that he will govern with the same xenophobic bravado that he has always expressed in his journalism. But if Mr. Johnson’s personality offers one glimmer of hope, it’s that he’s never shown any indication of holding principles, and is entirely relaxed about letting people down.

William Davies (@davies_will) is a sociologist and political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author, most recently, of “Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason.”

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