Courtesy of the Times.
Our views on race, immigration and Brexit are full of contradictions. But taken together, this jumble of prejudices and ideas is about to change the shape of British politics. The return to dominance of the two main parties, which saw Labour and the Conservatives share around 80 per cent of the vote, was one of the most surprising consequences of the referendum two years ago. It left many in the centre ground pining for a new party. But it now seems likely that it’s on the right, rather than on the middle ground, that a new force will appear. In three recent polls, Ukip has seen an uptick at the expense of the Conservatives. It could be the first sign of the governing party’s electoral coalition unravelling as voters react negatively to Theresa May’s Brexit compromise agreed at Chequers.
Although Ukip is the current beneficiary, the moribund party riven by factionalism looks no more able to revive itself than the Liberal Democrats. Prepare for a new organisation entirely. At first sight, immigration doesn’t appear to be a factor in the discontent felt by voters. The number of Britons identifying immigration as the most important issue has declined steeply since 2016, while the number identifying Brexit has risen on a similarly striking gradient. But taken together, concern about immigration and the delivery of Brexit mark those who feel disenfranchised by the Westminster establishment, and explain the outrage felt by some voters towards Mrs May’s Chequers plan. It is an uncomfortable truth that just over a quarter of respondents in a recent British Social Attitudes survey said they were “very” or a “little” prejudiced towards people of other races.
Brexiteers react with fury to any suggestion that race played a part in the vote to leave the EU. They are also the first to suggest that a betrayal of the referendum result will unleash an ugly populist backlash.
Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire, is the latest to sound the alarm. “The Chequers deal has disenfranchised voters,” she tweeted this week. “People tell me . . . that it was the ‘last straw’ and if a charismatic figure stood heading a new party they would vote for him/her. Sounds like we could be heading for our very own Trump/Macron/Robinson.” She was criticised for appearing to treat Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right, anti-Muslim English Defence League, as a mainstream politician. Robinson was jailed in May for contempt of court and his appeal against his sentence is due to be heard today. As Ms Dorries later made clear, her tweet was a warning, not an endorsement.
But Robinson’s anti-migrant creed has no shortage of high-profile supporters. Here is Donald Trump, speaking alongside Theresa May after their Chequers summit last week, on the damage the president believes migration is doing to the cultural fabric of Europe: “I just think it’s changing the culture. I think it’s a very negative thing for Europe. I think it’s very negative,” he said. “And I know it’s politically not necessarily correct to say that. But I’ll say it and I’ll say it loud. And I think they better watch themselves because you are changing culture. You are changing a lot of things. You’re changing security.” Sam Brownback, the US ambassador for international religious freedom, is reported to have warned Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, that “if Britain did not treat [Tommy] Robinson more sympathetically, the Trump administration might be compelled to criticise Britain’s handling of the case”.
Mr Trump’s son, Donald Junior, has tweeted support for Robinson. A US think-tank, Middle East Forum, helped to organise a rally in support of him in London and sent a Republican Congressman, Paul Gosar, to speak in his support.
Robinson is just one possible candidate to lead whatever replaces Ukip as the repository of protest votes, powered by alt-right cash. Generation Identity, an Austrian nationalist movement, is hovering at the political fringe. With slickly produced YouTube videos and clean-cut provocateurs, it is waiting to leap on any grievance in Britain that can serve its narrative of an apocalyptic clash of civilisations.
It is worth imagining what British politics will be like if Mrs May does, after all, squeeze a version of her Chequers compromise through Brussels. For most of the period between March 29, 2019, when we formally leave the union, and the next general election in 2022, Britain will be paying its full dues to an organisation over which it has no control. What’s more, every politician other than Mrs May will have a vested interest in stoking discontent over the terms of our departure. It is probable that she won’t even be in No 10 to defend it four years from now.