‘Why I believe Britain is having a breakdown’
A professor of politics at the University of Bath, Lees is a particular expert on German politics and environmental policy. He has also written about the expansion of the European Union.
“I got us into this. I’ll get us out” says Theresa May. Red alert! A university professor of politics argues that the UK is now in the midst of a fully-fledged political nervous breakdown.
What a mess. Just when you thought that the governing class could do no more to fail in their custodianship of Britain’s political settlement, it surprises us all. And let’s not forget the role of “the people” in creating the current impasse.
The result of the general election has made it clear that the nation – the people, the politicians, the media, everyone – have surpassed themselves.
Theresa May, the prime minister, chose to go to the country in order to create “unity” in parliament and unite the country behind her diamond-hard Brexit strategy. That has not happened. The result reveals a country still divided along the lines of age, education, income and geography.
Voters are estranged from each other convinced of the virtue of their own positions and in no mood to compromise
Any hopes that people were coming back together after the division and unhappiness of the EU referendum have been dashed.
May’s arrogance and hubris may be the immediate cause of these troubles but what we are seeing now is the effect of many chickens coming home to roost. The UK is the creation of armed force, global expansion, and the projection of power around the world. It was the beating heart of a great empire that brought enormous wealth for the few and knitted a people together in a shared identity.
Today, the empire is long gone and so has the shared belief in the UK and what it means. The belief in the superiority of UK institutions has taken a battering.
Many of the drivers of this decline go back over a century but more recently to the impact of Thatcherism. Labour’s well-intentioned but ultimately fudged programme of devolution and constitutional reform has also driven the constituent nations of the UK apart.
The elephant in the room is England. It was English voters who showed the most enthusiasm for the Thatcher project and voted in sufficient numbers to effectively impose it on the rest of the UK in the 1980s. And it was the English question that Labour ignored when it drew up its devolution plans a decade later.
In the absence of a legitimate democratic stage on which to express itself, the last decade has seen English nationalism take on a darker, more anti-system tone. It drove the vote to leave the EU and continues to poison political discourse today. It now seems impossible to provide a political expression for English identity that does not drown out the voices of the UK’s other nations. This is potentially fatal for the country.
Last year’s Leave vote also fractured the UK’s most important external links and further weakened its already diminishing influence in the world. Yet voters, often admired for their pragmatism and tolerance in the past, do not seem unduly troubled by that fact.
May’s embrace of the hardest of Brexit strategies reflected this reality. It offered voters a certain clarity of purpose, albeit at considerable economic cost.
This electoral humiliation is a rejection of May’s vision for a hard Brexit – but where does it leave the nation? The prime minister remains in power, for now at least, without a clear direction to take.
The electorate has doubled-down on its position in the Brexit referendum, with pro-Remain constituencies swinging heavily towards Labour, while the Tories often increased their majority in Leave areas.
Voters are estranged from each other, convinced of the virtue of their own positions and in no mood to compromise with their fellow citizens. At the same time, the UK’s governing class is paralysed and its politicians can see no further than their own survival. The UK’s national nervous breakdown continues.
This is an edited version of Professor Lees’ article in The Conversation. Follow the link under Become An Expert for the full text.
- Is Britain having a collective nervous breakdown?
- List the important “divisions” in British society, and write 500 words on what you think is the most important.
- Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own devolved governments, with varying degrees of power. England, meanwhile, has no official parliament of its own.
- English voters
- Especially those in the south-east of England.
- Pro-Remain constituencies
- For example, Labour regularly increased their vote by over 10,000 in constituencies in London, which voted heavily for Remain.
- Increased their majority in Leave areas
- The Tories’ best results in England came in parts of Yorkshire and the West Midlands which went heavily for Leave.