Former MP & current Director of the Conservative Middle East Council Charlotte Leslie asks what on earth is going on with Brexit?
“I don’t know really.” The person would shift uneasily on their doorstep. They did not like their MP asking them which way they would naturally vote. (I did not much like asking them.) “My dad was labour. He’d turn in his grave if he knew I voted any other way, but – I don’t know anymore,” they would shrug. “You seem ok. I might vote for you.”
Why do I share this endlessly recurring little scene from my days as an MP? Because it begins to shed light on the question I am asked more than any other by Ambassadors: “What on earth is going on with Brexit?”
A word of warning, I cannot tell you what you are burning to know: what is going to happen tomorrow; who is going to pull what vote and what stunt and what tweet; I cannot even tell you whether there will be a second referendum, a revocation of Article 50, a no-deal crash-out, or any Brexit at all, any more than a geo-scientist can tell you which bricks will fall where in an earthquake. But perhaps I can begin to suggest what forces are driving the monolithic movement of these tectonic plates over which our daily events roll, and even where it might lead us. If we are looking too closely at this turmoil to make sense of it, can zooming out give a clearer picture?
That desolate shrug was a familiar story that became more familiar for each of my seven years as a Conservative Member of Parliament. My seat was Bristol North West – a notorious ‘bell-weather’, marginal seat, that has historically been a predicator of general elections. No government wins a majority without winning Bristol North West. It is a microcosm of Britain with many of the country’s different demographics represented. Brilliant, if you want to understand the differences between the demographics who make up the beautiful patchwork of this country. Not so good if you want to be a safe-seat MP for 50 years. Luckily for me, I wanted the former.
Whether I was out canvassing my constituents, listening to their thoughts in pubs and cafes, or helping solve their problems in my MP’s surgery, one thing was clear: people felt little instinctive ‘belonging’ to either of the two parties. The terminologies ‘Conservative’ and ‘Labour’ simply did not speak to their sense of distinctive identity. The division, to them, all seemed a bit pointless.
The Westminster village did not seem to be much clearer. During my time as an MP between 2010 and 2017, all sorts of clever people at think tanks came up with politically transvestite terms like ‘Red Tory’ and ‘Blue Labour’ to describe what they saw as values traditionally associated with one party seeping into the other.
And it was not just between red and blue, Labour and Conservative. When the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 to form a government, various different shades of conservatism – and indeed ‘Lib-Dem-ism’ all came to the fore too. Some Conservative colleagues began to feel they had more in common with some of their Liberal Democrat partners in government than they did with some members of their own party.
As someone who struggled, even after seven years, to shed the perspective of a newcomer, the whole thing seemed a bit of a mixed-up mess – a reality of national identities that patently did not fit the artificial structures of party politics. The system however was much better than me in determinedly shoving reality into the ill-fitting establishment Labour-Conservative structures.
“There must be a question over which my constituents would instinctively divide.” I mused. I could detect the deep identity differences between my constituents. They just were not differences described by our party system. I imagined a question that would tap into a sense of identity so deep, and way of seeing the world so elementally engrained, that each would struggle to understand how the other could possibly see the world in such a way. That, I thought, would be the real political divide in our country.
What would this question be? I posited that it might be something like “Do you think politicians should deal with the world as it is, or the world as we would like it to be?” I have since come to realise, it was Brexit.
Put to one side, if you can, your personal views on Brexit. The striking phenomenon is how intuitively and instinctively the population responded to the question of whether Britain should leave the European Union. The debate has become vicious and tribal precisely because that one question, and how people answer it, describes a host of other socio-economic-psychological differences that have little, if anything, to do with the EU itself. It describes precisely the main difference I detected between my constituents, which cut across traditional ‘Conservative-Labour’ divides.
If there were few who were instinctively unsure of where they stood when the question was asked in 2016 (I was one of them) there are even fewer now that the two answers have formed themselves into teams in 2019. Neither side can begin to conceive of how the other can think as they do if they are rational and benevolent human beings. They therefore each view the other with grave suspicion and varying hostility.
This kind of deep, visceral difference is exactly the kind of divide that our British Parliamentary democracy was set up to accommodate. The referendum question short-circuited the rather slow, reluctant process of the Parliamentary structures and institutions re-setting themselves to reflect the reality of the nation, and founded what are essentially two organic parties of belief, with no Parliamentary structures to accommodate them.
We find ourselves in a situation where the physical division vertically down the House of Commons Chamber is ‘Labour-Conservative’, but the real division horizontally across the chamber reflects (though not in the same proportions) the real divide: ‘in-out’. How can the horizontal divide shuffle round to become the institutional, vertical one?
Watch this space. As Parliament has bent and stretched its legislature to begin to more accurately reflect the clamour of reality outside its walls, party structures have started to melt. MPs have begun to fragment off from their main parties, either to sit as independents, such as Nick Boles, or to join a new ‘Independent’ party: Change for Britain. At the same time as Nigel Farage has formed his Brexit party, the Change for Britain group has pronounced itself the ‘Alliance for Remain’. The shift is beginning to happen.
How will this pan out over the coming weeks, months or even years? I do not know. Be very suspicious of anyone who says they do. The elastic has gone in the established rules governing political predictions. They no longer apply. But if we lift our eyes from the obsessive futility of trying to predict the minutiae of tomorrow, we see the tectonic plates of our political system floating on a lava of change. Like with any change, the fluidity can be frightening, but as our system shows itself to be fluid not brittle, we can have more hope that this turbulence is an essential part of the building of a new political landscape to accommodate a changed reality. The truth is, it would be much more frightening if this change was not happening.
Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC)