It is a matter of historical fact that most attempted revolutions fail. Sometimes the ancient regime reasserts itself in a counter-revolution. In other cases, the revolution clears away a creaking old order only to be itself swept away by a third force. The two most significant revolutions of the 20th Century were of the latter type: the double revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Iran in 1978-9.
It is worth giving this preamble as Brexit now looks like a revolution doomed to failure: that is not to say it will not happen, perhaps even on schedule in March 2019, but if it does, it seems fated destroy its architects in the process.
It was always an unlikely candidate for success. Revolutions are not, as a rule, led by coalitions of the elderly and the least able. Moreover, as in 1917 Petrograd or 1978 Tehran, the revolutionaries barely seem to comprehend the forces that propelled them to success. As in both those cases, a heady cocktail of frustration, inequality, and a desire to dismantle traditional power structures sits strangely juxtaposed with intense nationalist sentiment. Like those fulcrums of history, this revolution was powered by contradictory demands. The millions who delivered the vote to Leave mostly have a very different vision of Brexit than their political leadership, and neither vision is remotely deliverable.
Whatever the plebeian element of Brexiteer opinion wishes, a country like Britain, whose prosperity has been based – for nearly two centuries – on international openness can only slam shut the drawbridge to the rest of the world with unacceptable damage. Still, such an outcome would be achievable at a cost.
The world the patrician Brexiteers fantasise about, the Empire 2.0 of British-led global deregulation, is simply not deliverable. Even beyond their over-estimate of British power, the world has changed in the past decade, and the global political growth sectors, from Pennsylvania to the Philippines, are security and nationalism, not free trade and libertarianism. This is, of course, a major reason why the Brexiteers won the referendum in the first place.
The raft of position papers published in recent weeks by HMG is weak. On the three ‘key issues’ that must be resolved first (the UK having yielded to EU demands on sequencing), the UK has not even published a paper on a final financial settlement or residual rights of citizens, while that on Northern Ireland is riddled with wishful thinking.
The press sentiment on both sides of the Channel has turned negative. The Spectator’s editorial this week calls on the UK government to make plans for a no-deal crash Brexit. A senior Sky News correspondent has opined bluntly that Brexit talks cannot succeed. In Germany, the press has moved beyond incredulity at British incompetence into outright ridicule (see the Süddeutsche in English or Germany’s equivalent of the BBC World Service in German).
It strikes me that the next six weeks are so are quite risky for the UK as a country. The perception of ridiculousness internationally is so bad that markets and international business may lose confidence that this is a credibly run country. This year’s Tory Party Conference is a moment of acute danger. With a leadership election in the next two years more than possible, top Tories will be making speeches, and commitments, with their eye primarily on London press headlines, rather than board meetings and foreign ministries internationally.
Helped by Mark Carney’s adrenaline shot of credit last summer, the dire pre-Referendum economic warnings of Remainers started to look like crying wolf. In recent months, however, against a worldwide upward trend, UK growth has slowed to the lowest of any EU or OECD economy, and Sterling has started sliding against the Euro again. Analysts have again become bearish on the UK. There are a number of major structural problems with the UK economy: the most worrying of these being a decades-old and very serious balance of payments problem, high and rising levels of personal debt, poor productivity, and overvalued homes. If the pound continues to slip, for example, that is quite a toxic cocktail.
In terms of pure politics, any serious economic stutter will shatter the credibility of Tory Brexiteers. They may continue to be in power for a while, and may even deliver Brexit on schedule in March 2019. But like the Kerensky government’s pursuit of the war in the summer of 1917, it will simply make their eventual collapse all the more implosive.
So if this strange revolution of the least revolutionary is botched, who fills the vacuum? It’s far too early to tell.
My instinct is that there is limited short-term potential for the populist right in a post-Brexit UK. In winning the Brexit referendum, it achieved what had been its key goal for a quarter of a century: if Brexit is a failure, so is the right. The populist right may well come back in 5, 10, or 15 years’ time, but it will not step into a post-Brexit credibility vacuum.
If Brexit collapses and the UK does remain in the EU, I’d imagine a new electoral coalition of the Tory right and some of UKIP’s footsoldiers will become a significant force. For Brexit to collapse, however, it will have to go badly wrong in a way that significantly shifts public opinion in the next 18 months. Not only that, but a bigger UKIP would also be a broader UKIP, which to succeed would have to accommodate culturally liberal Brexiteers and probably at the same time promise meaningful economic change to working-class voters. A party of that uneasy coalition would not only have some tempting contradictory rough edges to attack in a General Election, but would have to govern for some time while making a second attempt at Brexit. It’s a tall order.
The old cross-party establishment of liberals looks utterly bewildered. Having set the agenda in the UK for most of the period since Disraeli was Prime Minister, it seems incapable of carrying out guerrilla war from the fringes. The next two years may teach it to – the Labour Remainers seem to have won a significant internal battle recently. But that would have been impossible without the strong Remain tilt of most of Corbyn’s allies, if not the Labour leader himself. As of now, of its own strength, the old establishment seems unable to imagine how to attempt a counter-revolution, let alone deliver one.
That seems to leave first dibs to setting the UK’s future direction in the hands of the radical left – and I say that as someone who is by no means a worshipper of the Cult of St Jeremy. It currently has the momentum (pun intended) and has played a blinder on Brexit politics and more generally over the past two years. It is also now utterly dominant within the Labour Party. Even if a centre-left figure like Sadiq Khan or Andy Burnham emerged as Corbyn’s successor, they will be will be tacking rather harder to port than they would have imagined a year ago.
The left also has demographics and the structure of the British economy on its side: Labour didn’t do well because of a surge of liberal students, an inaccurate myth the right has consoled itself with since the election, but won handsomely among all age groups under 45, including people with mortgages and kids at school. Corbyn brought young working-class voters out in numbers not seen for a generation.
More than that, the vast bulk of Middle England’s younger generation is caught in difficult thickets of insecure employment, even in ‘good’ jobs, and exorbitant house prices or galloping rents that make it impossible to save for a deposit. Both the liberal establishment and the right worked together to create an economy that cut a generation adrift. With the under 45s mostly defiantly hostile to Brexit and vulnerable to any downturn it might provoke – or be blamed on provoking – the big question might be whether the next phase in Britain’s political history is as a North European Social Democracy within the EU or with a sort of Socialism in one country not seen in modern times.
The left too, however, has its contradictions to manage. Corbyn has sensibly steered away from addressing identity politics issues that his most devoted supporters obsess about. Yet he cannot ultimately avoid them as a Prime Minister in waiting. Underneath the crisis in Western liberalism is its starry-eyed optimism about globalism and multi-culturalism that seems a long way from the reality of fascism and fundamentalist Islam resurgent alike and people being locked out of home ownership by middle-class Chinese buying properties online from the other end of the world for investment. The left, like the liberals, is ideologically locked into a universalist progressive humanism that seems increasingly at variance with the real world.
The old order seems doomed, but there is no obvious midwife of a new order. We are sailing in uncharted waters. Who in Petrograd could have imagined, as a baby democracy emerged in the thaw of 1917, that by the time the winter snows came again that the arcane, irrelevant, Bolsheviks would be in charge and would stay in charge for more than seven decades?