The Brexit referendum was called effectively to settle an inner-party struggle within the conservative Tory party. The struggle in the Tory party signifies deep divisions within the ruling elite and the state. The Brexit vote and the victory of the nationalist strand in Toryism present the spectre of disintegration of the United Kingdom.
“Goebbels must be laughing in his grave,” I texted on the morning of 24 June 2016 as I woke to news of Brexit victory. The “leave” and “remain” camps, the pundits, politicians and public woke up shocked and stunned. The leave camp did not expect to win, and the remain camp did not expect to lose. All sides lied, some more than others. Indeed the campaign was a competition on misinformation. Everyone knew that all sides were lying.
The remain side unleashed “Demon Fear” and the leave side let loose “Demon Racial Bigotry.” For the leave side, immigration and the National Health Service (NHS) were pivotal issues, their arguments cloaked in jingoistic nationalism. The immigrants were somehow responsible for Little England’s problems including the crisis in the NHS. The remain camp chanted the same mantra: market access, investments, and growth that came with European Union (EU) membership would fix the problems that people of the United Kingdom (UK) have reeled under for four decades since Margaret Thatcher began rolling back the state, privatising Britain and liberalising the markets. Wealth polarisation, regional disparities, falling wages and unravelling health, education and social services across England makes London feel and look like a different country. In the end those who lied best, unleashed the worst demons, won.
The Morning After
The morning after the dark night, the leave campaign admitted to lying surprisingly quickly, I suspect partly because with the shock of winning, it dawned on them that they would have to deliver on their lies. Central to the campaign was the claim that by leaving the EU there would be £350 million savings available to invest in the NHS. Hours after the referendum results, Nigel Farage, leader of the far right UK Independence Party (UKIP), confessed the figures were wrong and the claims should not have made by the leave camp. Boris Johnson, the conservative leader heading the leave campaign admitted that immigration could not be brought down after all, and that the EU would continue to remain at the heart of British economy and society.
Scotland and Ireland voted to remain. All of England barring London voted to leave. Wales, England’s poor cousin, voted to leave and realised that the significant subsidies they received from the EU might be in jeopardy. So did Cornwall and other regions. The morning after, both regions wanted assurance from Little England-to-be that their subsidies should be protected. The pundits had a field day on 24 June analysing the votes, the differences between the four nations of the United Kingdom, rich and poor, old and young, regional disparities, and above all the yawning gaps between the political, economic and intellectual elite, and the people.
Conservatives: Natural Right to Rule
The Brexit referendum was called effectively to settle an inner-party struggle within the conservative Tory party. The divisions in the Tory party signify deep divisions within the ruling elite and the state. Like with states under communist party rule, the history of what I shall call “neo-aristocratic democracy” in Britain is riddled with periodic inner-party struggles within the Tory party whenever the state is in crisis and divisions appear among the ruling elite. What Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron have in common is that their own party brought them down when the country was in crisis and the elite were deeply divided.
The Tories are not just any other political party. They are an institution in Britain with a history that parallels the rise of modern Britain, going back to 1678. The Tories have overseen the transformation of the Kingdom of England into the Kingdom of Great Britain and later the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the dissolution of the British Empire, and are now poised to oversee the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom. The historical embeddedness of the Tories in British history throws light on how another inner-party struggle has dragged Britain into a rocky and uncertain future.
Unlike France, Russia, and other European countries, Britain never had a proper “bourgeois democratic” revolution that buried their aristocracies in history. It was never defeated in wars and forced to undergo fundamental constitutional reforms like Germany and Italy. The feudal aristocracy in Britain never became an historical artefact as it did in other European states. Instead, they compromised, collaborated, and coexisted with the mercantilists, the industrialists, the imperialists, and the bankers and financiers throughout the history of capitalism. The expertise of the ancient aristocracy on governance and statecraft, and that of the business classes on economy have been the mainstay of Tory governance.
Unlike most modern nations, Britain does not have a written constitution. National history is the source of the unwritten constitution, which includes conventions, royal prerogatives, political practices, and gentlemanly codes of conduct. Parliamentary supremacy means, when push comes to shove, laws cannot be struck down by courts, and whoever commands majority in the parliament of the day can make up the constitution as they go along, so long as the changes conform to constitutional traditions. These arrangements ensure that the reins of England remain in the hands of the neo-aristocracy. The idea that the Tories have a natural right to govern England is deeply embedded within these historical traditions. I suspect most English people, including the more radical ones, may oppose the Tory party, this or that policy, but remain unaware of the neo-aristocratic character of British democracy.
Right, Left and Right
What then of the opposition parties? In the system of neo-aristocratic democracy the limits of permissible opposition is prescribed by the Tories. One reason why the political, military and media establishments, including his own party members of parliament (MPs) are against Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour party leader, is because he oversteps the limits of permissible radicalism in the neo-aristocratic model of democracy. The British left, like other European left, have their own long histories of fear of migrants and confusions about nationalism. The Labour party was as divided by the Brexit referendum as were the Tories. The trade unions, the Labour party’s main support base, having given in to globalisation and productivity agreements, are fearful that open EU borders and stricter environmental regulations will affect British jobs. The equally strong non-governmental organisations (NGOs), aid organisations and humanitarians, the likes of OXFAM—where Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered during the last phase of the campaign, used to work—were with the remain camp. These organisations increasingly form an important segment of the Labour party alongside trade unions.
Nationalism criss-crosses all shades of British politics, but without the ideologically appropriate vocabulary to articulate it in times of crises, such as the one the Brexit referendum presented. Both Cameron and Corbyn were reluctant campaigners for the remain camp, not least because the race demons unleashed by the UKIP and smaller ultra nationalists spread atavistic fears that are not easily combated by arguments that presuppose economic self-interest as the guiding spirit for political action. Parties like the UKIP are ideologically conservative, and those like the Labour, ideologically left, but neither have the class and the history that the Tories have. Invariably, in such a system, deep divisions in the ruling elite and the state manifest as inner-party struggles within the Tories. These fears are played out nationally as arguments over Englishness and identity versus cosmopolitanism and commerce. The Tories set the agenda to which the others must tick YES or NO. Invariably when the Tory nationalist fractions win they take Britain down a rocky road and uncertain future.
History Repeats Itself?
Inner-party struggles ousted Edward Heath and installed Margaret Thatcher as party leader when the Tories were divided and the country faced economic crisis and unemployment. Thatcher too played the immigration card, arguing that popular fears about Britain being “swamped by people of different cultures” needed to be allayed, and that the National Front, a far right anti-immigration party, had indeed raised legitimate concerns. Thatcher also promised to bring down immigration. She is reported to have snubbed Prime Minister Morarji Desai when he was waiting to meet the Liberal Party leader at 10 Downing Street. Thatcher won to become the Prime Minister who opposed trade unions, privatised and liberalised the economy, and sowed the seeds of polarisation, poverty, and regional disparities.
Indians will recall Winston Churchill, the wartime Tory Prime Minister, and the struggle over Tory policies towards India. Churchill vehemently opposed dominion status to India, which is what the liberal Congress leadership had asked for. At the height of World War II, when two million Indian soldiers were fighting for the empire with Indian money and materials, Churchill never held back from display of hatred for Indians. “I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” he said, adding, “[t]he Hindus [are] a foul race protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due. I wish that Harris, [the Air Chief Marshall] would send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.” When cautioned about the dangers of racial politics that Britain was pursuing in India, which could backfire on Britain under war conditions, Churchill said, “[w]ell if our poor troops have to be kept in a sweltering, syphilitic climate and lice-infested barracks for the sake of your precious unity, I’d rather see them have a good civil war.”
The question as to what the future of Britain might have been if the Tories had conceded to dominion status for India must remain a speculative one. In the end, the Indians did have a good civil war, but also the sun set over the British Empire under Tory watch.
The Brexit vote and the victory of the nationalist strand in Toryism present the spectre of disintegration of the UK. Within six hours of the result, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that another referendum to leave the UK was on the table. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in Ireland announced that the Brexit result effectively undermined the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which ended a long-drawn-out and bloody civil war in Northern Ireland and called for a “border referendum” on unification with the Republic of Ireland. Spain called for reunification of Gibraltar with the mainland. Can the same logic that ended the empire now transform Great Britain into Little England?
Mukerjee, Madhusree (2010): Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, New York: Basic Books.
 All quotes from Mukerjee (2010).