Last year, previewing the Brexit referendum, I explained the history like this:
Back in 1975, most of the opposition to Europe came from the left. The Conservatives (then in opposition) supported continued membership, while the Labour Party was divided — most ministers supported a “yes” vote, but the majority of Labour’s conference was opposed. The strongest votes to leave came from safe Labour areas, and particularly from Scotland. The strong Tory areas of south-eastern England voted overwhelmingly to stay.
Then, the trade unions were the strongest opponents of membership, while the tabloid press supported staying in. Now, all of those positions are reversed.
And that’s symptomatic of the big shift in European politics over the last 40 years. Then, anti-establishment populism was almost entirely a left-wing force. Memories of the Second World War were too fresh for the far right to command much popular support.
Things now look very different.
But with the referendum over, you might have thought British politics would put the issue behind it and revert to something like the established pattern – indeed I half thought this myself. Not so. With the debate on the terms of the country’s exit from the European Union likely to drag on for years, British parties are more and more locking themselves into polarised positions on this single issue.
Ten days ago, Labour’s Brexit spokesman announced that Labour was committed to a “soft” Brexit: that is, to remaining within the single market and the customs union at least for a transitional period, and to negotiating an agreement that “retains the benefits” of both as “partners” with the EU.
Now it’s reported that Labour will enforce a party-line vote next week against the second reading of the government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, forcing the Conservatives to marshal all their forces, including the Democratic Unionists (DUP) of Northern Ireland, to ensure its passage.
The government’s majority is unlikely to be in danger this time. But if Labour keeps pushing, it means that the government will be at the mercy of pro-Europe dissenters on its own backbench whenever a Brexit-related issue comes to a parliamentary vote. And given the intrinsic difficulties of some of those issues and the incompatible views within the Tory Party (not to mention the DUP), it’s quite possible that some such vote over the next year or two could bring down the government.
The Conservative leadership, of course, has stressed exactly that prospect, saying that “a potential rebellion threatened to strengthen Labour’s position.” But the division between proponents of an open and a closed Britain is now so stark that it may transcend – or redefine – party loyalties.
It’s hard to overstate what a remarkable development this is. Many Brexit supporters are traditional Labour voters, and anti-European sentiment is strong in the party’s working-class heartlands. The most pro-European voters, on the other hand, are from the prosperous middle class, supported by the business lobby.
More generally, Labour for decades has been identifiably the more insular and backward-looking of the British parties, while the Conservatives – at least since the time of Margaret Thatcher, but to some extent even before – have been supporters of trade, entrepreneurship and more cosmopolitan values. The reversal of positions over Europe is symptomatic of a deeper change.
And Labour is pushing this reversal not under a moderniser like Tony Blair or David Miliband, but under Jeremy Corbyn, the most unreconstructed left-wing, working-class leader that it could find.
I don’t know how far this can go. Can Labour really ride the twin tracks of Corbyn’s old-fashioned socialism and defence of the European single market, or will something have to give? Will the industrial working class, or what’s left of it, accept being left politically homeless? And will the pro-European Tories, even if they help to bring down a Brexiting government, ever feel comfortable working with the party that started as the political arm of the trade union movement?
With a different voting system, some of these tensions could be accommodated by a move to existing smaller parties or the formation of new ones. But first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts makes it almost impossible to displace the two big parties. Both voters and MPs are pretty much stuck with the choice between Conservatives and Labour.
And that choice is now taking the shape of a choice between a party of reaction, of fear and xenophobia, and a party of openness to the world, of liberal values and faith in a common humanity.
Which in turn is pretty much where the British party system started out, with the Tory Party returning to its roots and Labour taking the place of the Whigs, who once defended immigration, capitalism and responsible government. Compared to forty years ago it looks like a reversal of roles, but in the longer view perhaps it’s just what we should have expected.