‘Britain has never been more European’, Politico, 28 May 2019.

Britain, welcome to Europe.

Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party — which ran away with 32 percent of the vote and is set to gain 28 seats in the European Parliament — has blown the United Kingdom’s political system to pieces. And paradoxically, it’s made it more “European” in the process.

With the Conservatives and Labour Party bleeding support, and big gains for Farage, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, the two-party system looks like it might be on its last legs — replaced by the multiparty pluralism that drives politics in much of Europe.

As hard as it may be to concede for those determined to buy into the myth of British exceptionalism, the U.K. is following in its neighbors’ footsteps.

Austria, Estonia and Germany — to name just three — have all reckoned with the rise of an extremist party in national politics. And across the EU, traditional catch-all parties of the center right and center left have also seen massive drops in support. New cleavages that cut across class divides have boosted the popularity of political startups on their flanks — be they populist far-rightists, radical centrists (à la Macron), radical leftists (como Podemos), Green parties, or even separatists.

Welcome to fragmentation, polarization, volatility and the erosion of traditional party loyalties.

This is not the first time, of course, that a populist, radical-right, British insurgency led by Farage has topped a European poll and sent a big bunch of MEPs to make as much mischief (and as much money) as possible in Brussels and Strasbourg: In 2014, the U.K. Independence Party (may it rest in peace) won 27 percent of the vote.

Despite Farage’s win this weekend, he is arguably no closer to holding office back home. As the former UKIP leader knows from experience, it’s by no means easy to turn what is effectively a protest vehicle (albeit a much flashier and better engineered one this time) into an all-singing, all-dancing outfit that people — even the people who play a starring role in every populist’s wet dreams — reckon is ready for government.

The more immediate implications of this European election for the U.K. is the collapse of its two big mainstream parties. If UKIP’s win five years ago sent tremors through British politics, this year’s Brexit Party upset is more like a full-scale earthquake.

Five years ago, the big two — let’s carry on calling them that for the sake of argument — performed woefully, but were still relatively close on UKIP’s heels (with 24 percent for Labour and 23 percent for the Tories). Together, they could claim to have the support of nearly half the country. That argument can’t be made this time around: Support for the two parties amounts to barely more than a quarter of the vote.

Labour’s share, at 14 percent, is its worst at a nationwide election in 100 years, and has already prompted calls for the party to pivot toward calling for a second referendum in order to stop the resurgent Liberal Democrats (on 20 percent), Greens (12 percent), and Scottish National Party (38 percent in Scotland) in their tracks.

But it’s the Conservatives’ share, at only 9 percent, that’s truly catastrophic. Perhaps most disastrously for the country, the result all but guarantees that they will now order the full English Brexit — namely a promise to leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31, cooked for our delectation by a charismatic leader like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Sure, the Tories have almost certainly lost some votes in Remain regions to the Lib Dems. But neither the Tory MPs nor the grassroots Tory members who will vote to replace Prime Minister Theresa May as party leader are going to be listening to that particular still small voice.

Tory thinking (if you can call it that) goes something like this: By calling for Brexit to happen by Halloween, deal or no deal, the party can claw back most of the support it’s clearly lost to Farage by the next general election. After all, the argument goes, a year after UKIP’s 2014 triumph, David Cameron won an overall majority for the Conservatives.

This time, however, the Tories have even more reason to be worried. Cameron’s victory was the result of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which favors large parties over small ones. But should the Brexit Party manage to maintain its lead over the Conservatives, then there’s no telling to which party that advantage will accrue.

We’ve been slowly moving away from two-party politics in the U.K. for decades now. The European election results might be the moment when we finally kiss it goodbye.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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