Amsterdam, a.d. III Id. Oct. MMDCCLXXI A.U.C.,
The Conservative party in the UK runs a serious risk of splitting into two different parties. While combining populism with an economically right-wing programme has a long pedigree, the situation the Conservative party finds itself in is more fraught with risk than that. Having been the party of free trade for a long time, and having voters who have intricate economic ties with continental Europe, close trading ties with Europe are very important to many Tories. Soft Brexit would probably be acceptable for most well-to-do Tories, and it would not be a reason to leave the party. Hard Brexit, however, would be wholly unacceptable to them, yet this receives support from 61% of Leave voters. Moreover, those Leave voters and their representatives are increasingly adamant they get their way. So, the Conservative constituency has become extremely unstable, as the groups of voters it consists of wholeheartedly disagree about the kind of country the UK should be. The course the Tories are pursuing/staggering onto is extremely risky for the party as a whole (apart from the risks for its voters), and I would not be surprised if the party does not survive it.
Populism and Laissez-Faire
Populism and economic laissez-faire have often been combined by conservative parties. In his book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy Ziblatt argues there is a strategy behind this. Conservative parties have historically always presented the happy few, which means that in a democracy they face the difficult task of protecting the income and property of the rich from the poor and working class. As long as the economy grows and everyone benefits from the productivity of the rich this presents little to no problem. However, it is also imaginable that too much inequality comes at the expense of the poor and the working class. Especially when market failures, such as monopolies – increasingly on the rise in the West – or negative externalities, redistribute income from the poor to the rich. In this case, it is up to the conservative party to prevent the working or middle class from voting for left-wing parties, which would redistribute income and property to their constituency, either through fixing market failures or through direct income redistribution.
Luckily for the conservative party representative democracy allows strategies which make this possible. Voters have to vote for parties or candidates and their platforms, rather than on specific issues in referendums. This means that conservative parties can attract support from the middle class or the working class by drawing attention to other issues than inequality or poverty. Such issues could be family values, public decency, jingoism, or migration. By drawing attention to these issues, conservative parties can draw support from the middle and working class, despite an economic program which could hurt the middle and working class. To be sure, I am not saying that relatively laissez-faire economics necessarily always hurts those groups, but they definitely can in certain circumstances.
Brexit and Tory Economics
Viewing Brexit from this perspective it becomes more clear why it is the Conservative party that took up the banner of good old England and St George. Lower middle class and working class voters which were harmed most by Thatcher are very often now voting for the Tories because of Tory support for Brexit. Beating the drum of ‘taking back control’ and fighting a Churchillian fight for freedom against the tentacles of the European octopus draws votes from people who are voting against their own economic interests. I am not calling these people stupid, they have every right to hate the EU as much as they want and to want to leave.
Nevertheless, the conservatives are using this to their advantage. The Tories are slowly killing the NHS, they implemented austerity measures which disproportionally hurt the working class, the poor and the disabled, poorer areas started receiving less money from the government, leading to faltering local public services. Many of the people hurt by this nevertheless vote for the Tories because of their stance on Brexit.
As long as the Tories could manage the withdrawal from Brussels, they were also capable of preventing a hard Brexit. A soft Brexit would indeed further reduce the UK’s sovereignty, but it would keep it inside the EU’s common market. In other words, soft Brexit would masque austerity measures and cuts in the welfare state, it would draw votes from many voters hurt by that, and it would not actually impact business that much. In other words, the UK’s economic elite was on board with this as an unfortunate outcome of David Cameron’s call for a referendum on EU membership.
However, if hard Brexiteers manage to take over the party it becomes questionable whether most major funders of the Tories will keep funding the party that hurts their pocketbooks. A hard Brexit would increase risk, ensure a long transition period, and limit access to European labour, capital and markets. This would definitely hurt the elite’s economic interests. Now the withdrawal from Brussels is slowing turning into a stampede this scenario becomes increasingly likely, with 61% of Leave supporters supporting a hard Brexit.
Meanwhile, soft Brexit is risible, if not treasonous, if you really want Brexit more than in name. Of course, hard Brexiteers might flow back to UKIP, but by now a significant number of Members of Parliament and figureheads who have held ministerial positions have spoken out in favour of hard Brexit. These people would not go down without a fight, nor would they want to play second fiddle to Nigel Farage.
Therefore I would not be surprised if the Conservative party might split in the near future. The coalition of voters which the Conservative party currently represents is unstable, and the different groups within the Conservative coalition both have well-known figureheads, and they both could get, or are already, well organized. In other words, there might be too little to keep the Tories together in order for them to survive as a political party.
Bottom line: The Conservative party in the UK contains two groups of voters, an affluent group and a middle/working class group. Many of the former do not want hard Brexit, the latter insist on it. Unless either side backs down, the Conservative party will split.
Image: Britain Stronger in Europe/Facebook