Brexit shows how a tiny party can have big consequences

The populist radical right wins power in different countries in different ways. In Hungary and Poland, what were initially mainstream conservative parties with populist tendencies drifted inexorably, and now, it seems, irrevocably, into illiberalism once in government. Brexit provides perhaps the most striking illustration yet of populist radical right parties — first the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and then its effective successor the Brexit Party — wielding, and indeed effectively achieving, power without winning office. These parties have ensured their pet issue — Britain’s membership of the European Union — is now the major dividing line in British politics. How did this happen?

In part, the answer is time and chance. Had politicians made slightly different choices at key junctures, things might have turned out very differently. However, there is also a structural explanation that many people prefer to ignore. The “respectable” mainstream right and the unashamedly radical right often have far more in common than either of them care to admit. The UK Conservative Party’s choices have been shaped by its relationship and rivalry with radical right-wing parties.

Brexit is a populist project

The perceived message of the 2016 referendum result was that supposedly Europhile elites had ignored and even betrayed the wishes of ordinary people. Those who were ruled had had the opportunity to express themselves through direct rather than representative democracy, sending their rulers a message they couldn’t ignore and would never forget. Should those in charge — the “political class,” “the establishment,” “the experts” — ever try to roll back changes, they would be swept from office by fresh faces unencumbered by past involvement in government and dedicated, tribune-like, to implementing the will of the people.

This threat, rather than any long-held ideological conviction, explains why Boris Johnson, Britain’s newly installed prime minister, claims he is willing to see the country leave the European Union without any deal to minimize the disruption. Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to be forced to make this kind of gamble: His predecessors Theresa May (2016-2019) and David Cameron (2005-2016) found their choices were similarly constrained. What is most interesting is that they were not forced into this position by the Conservatives’ traditional rival, the center-left Labour Party, but by a political force — the populist radical right — that has only ever won two out of 650 or so seats in the House of Commons.

Conservatives like to talk up populist issues

To understand how this happened, it’s necessary to understand how British conservatism works. Conservative politicians have long been skeptical about claims for the benefits of ethnic diversity and rehabilitation rather than punishment. They usually prefer “common sense” solutions and patriotic pride to purported expertise and naive internationalism. They have also tended to place more faith in leaders.

This helps explain why they are so often tempted to appeal to voters’ nativist, nationalist and authoritarian attitudes. It doesn’t hurt, either, that issues like crime, immigration and foreign policy/overseas aid can help them split the center left’s traditional electoral coalition of the cosmopolitan, liberal middle class and the less cosmopolitan, less liberal working class.

In the past, however, conservatives didn’t fully yield to temptation. Since mainstream center-right parties were often in government and needed to be responsible rather than merely responsive to their voters, they politicized wedge issues but only occasionally genuinely prioritized them. Conservative politicians flirted with populism but rarely went further.

This opened room for the radical right

Conservatives’ squeamishness created a space for more radical right-wingers — populist politicians willing not just to stir the pot and keep it simmering but also to turn up the heat and see it boil over. These more radical politicians appealed to voters (and tabloid media) who wanted to go back to a society that was less inclusive, less insecure, less tolerant, less politically correct, less apologetic and, for some at least, whiter.

These populist politicians were unlikely to make it into government. However, they could and did press their conservative counterparts to actually live up to their rhetoric.

Panic over Nigel Farage’s UKIP, together with the need to keep the Conservatives together, explains Cameron’s promise in 2013 to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union. Even though UKIP won no seats in the 2015 general election, it did win nearly 4 million votes, ensuring the referendum would actually be held a year later. Farage’s influence on the referendum led Cameron’s successor, May, to agree to leave not just the E.U. but also its single market and customs union. When Farage’s new political vehicle, the Brexit Party, took 30.5 percent of the vote in the 2019 European Parliament elections, compared to the Conservatives’ measly 8.8 percent, it was almost inevitable that May would step down and be replaced by a “no-deal” Brexiteer like Johnson.

Farage’s parties have played a huge role in driving the Conservatives to the right, but only because the differences between them and the Tories have only ever been of degree rather than kind. It is possible that the Conservative Party will revert to a more centrist “one nation Toryism” once Brexit has actually happened. However, it may also be that the Conservative Party has gotten so used to sounding like a radical populist party to protect its flank that it has, for all intents and purposes, become one.

Tim Bale (@ProfTimBale) is a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London and deputy director of the think tank UK in a Changing Europe.

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