Book review: “The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life” by Stephen Davies (Part 2)
Aligning issues can create stable political coalitions for a long time. But those issues do not retain their aligning role forever. An aligning issue can fade into the background, or be crowded out by a new one. Now, what happens when a new aligning issue comes along, and cuts across the ideological camps created by the old one?
This is when politics gets weird, messy, and unpredictable. Old alliances break up, and new ones emerge. The behaviour of political actors no longer seems to make sense. Davies calls this a political realignment.
Weird, messy, unpredictable: if this description sounds familiar, that is not a coincidence. The past seven years or so have been an extremely weird period in British politics. Some have described it as “the Banter Era”, the era in which nothing seems to make sense anymore. This is not just about the fact that the Leave side won the referendum, but also about how the Brexit process subsequently played out, how the major political parties have repositioned themselves, and how their electoral bases have changed.
Davies’ explanation for this is that we have just gone through such a period of realignment. Economics, he argues, has ceased to be the primary aligning issue. This does not mean that economics no longer matters: it remains an important secondary alignment issue, which will continue to divide us. But if we want to make sense of the events of the past seven years, economics alone will only get us so far.
The primary alignment issue of our time is what could loosely be termed “cultural identity”, which encompasses matters such as nationalism vs cosmopolitanism. To illustrate what this means: Davies cites a survey in which self-identified Leave and Remain voters were asked to name their favourite brands. The favourite brands of Remain voters included: Twitter, Instagram, BBC iPlayer, Spotify, Airbnb and LinkedIn. The favourite brands of Leave voters included: HP Sauce, Birds Eye Food, Iceland supermarkets, Cathedral City Cheddar, PG Tips tea, and Richmond Sausages. (If I had designed the survey, I would have included Carling and BrewDog Punk IPA as response options, although we can probably guess how that would have turned out.)
Other surveys show that questions which relate to broad cultural values, such as attitudes to the death penalty or the role of discipline in education, are far better predictors of how somebody voted in the EU Referendum than economic variables, such as income.
This is remarkable because neither brand preferences, nor cultural values, are in an obvious way related to Brexit. The EU was never going to ban HP Sauce or Richmond Sausages, and you can still use Twitter and Instagram in post-Brexit Britain. Nor did anybody think that Brexit would bring back the death penalty, or caning in schools. But what those preferences do is act as cultural signifiers.
The realignment and Brexit
According to Davies, the Leave side intuitively understood the realignment, and fought the campaign on those terms: culture and identity first, economics second. The Remain side, on the other hand, still fought its campaign on the terms of the old political alignment.
After the Referendum, a consensus quickly formed on the Left, which interpreted the Leave victory as a cry for help by “the left-behind”. According to this interpretation, “the left-behind” were people whose lives had been devastated by neoliberalism and austerity, and who wrongly blamed immigrants and the EU for their misery. So they lashed out against the wrong target.
In other words, the Left still failed to think in terms of the new alignment. One can indeed interpret the Leave victory as a backlash by “the left-behind” – but it is primarily the culturally left-behind, not the economically left-behind we are talking about here. It was a backlash by people who felt their values, their way of life, and their identity constantly derided by Britain’s cultural elites. These are the people whose “low-status opinions” are the target of every other comedian’s jokes.
Ironically, it was only after the Referendum that the (Continuity-)Remain side started to make their arguments in terms of the new alignment, now stressing cultural values and identity signifiers of their own. The argument shifted from “Brexit will cost us money” to “We represent the sensible, educated and enlightened part of Britain, and we must not let the ignorant, xenophobic small-town rubes dictate our politics.” This worked, insofar as it (belatedly) mobilised their own side. But it also turned Brexit into even more of a culture war issue.
The Brexit culture war played out in parliament as well. Davies believes that under different circumstances, parliament would have worked out a pragmatic compromise, a Soft Brexit that would have kept Britain close to the EU. But this was not possible in the toxic climate of the Brexit culture war. Continuity Remainers blocked various Soft Brexit options, still hoping that they would be able to overturn Brexit altogether, while Brexiteers also became more strident and uncompromising in their views.
Davies believes that his realignment hypothesis can also explain the outcomes of the last two General Elections, both of which were remarkable elections in their own right, and which, given the huge swings between them, were all the more remarkable when viewed together.
Continue to Part 3…
- “The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life” by Dr Steve Davies
- “Political Realignment Panel” with Dr Steve Davies, Kate Andrews, Lisi Christofferson and David Goodhart, IEA THINK Conference 2021
- “The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life” with Mark Littlewood and Dr Steve Davies
- “Are we in the middle of a political realignment” – Dr Steve Davies, IEA THINK Conference 2019
- “The Realignment of Modern Politics” with Madeline Grant and Dr Steve Davies