Roar writer Aman Patel on how Brexit has upended political institutions and could spell the end for reasoned discourse
If we’re going to ask the question “Is British politics broken?”, we must first understand what British politics was before. By “politics” we mean the institutions that this country is built on and fundamentally intertwined with such as Parliament or certain economic structures. Much like my Xbox and I, politics and economics are inseparable; the economic landscape can lead to changing political dynamics and visa versa.
Our political institutions are built on what are fundamentally liberal ideas. When I say “liberal” I am not referring to its typical usage nowadays, that being to describe a left-wing political ideology. “Liberal” may also refer to the advocacy of freedom of choice, such as a representative democracy where individuals are able to vote equally and freely amongst their fellow Britons in order to elect their government.
Before we discuss whether Brexit did indeed break these political institutions, we must first reflect on how they were established in the first place. This may appear to be superfluous but I’d like to go back to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. The Industrial Revolution saw a large proportion of the population transition from working in agriculture to industry where wages were higher and more skill was required. As this process occurred, inequality initially rose and then began to fall.
This change in inequality following the industrial revolution is described by the Kuznets curve. The process, in very simple terms, generated representative, democratic political institutions. Interestingly enough, we are currently at the beginning of another industrial revolution. This time instead of machines in a factory, we’re faced with Alexa telling us we’ve overslept (again), or playing that song when we ask her to (you know the one). With this “Infotech Revolution” people are now transitioning from the manufacturing sector to the highly-skilled tech service sector, where, again, wages and demand are much higher. The similarities to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century can be used to explain why inequality is once again on the rise.
Now remember how economic processes can lead to changing political institutions? Brexit did exactly that. Brexit, I posit, was driven by this movement away from the manufacturing sector. Whether it’s the American Rustbelt region or British northern working towns, the forces of the second industrial revolution has left millions disenfranchised. The brutal irony is that the “Vote Leave” campaign utilised that very disenfranchisement to sell Brexit to the communities that it had hit the worst. The campaign hired a cutting-edge, technology company called Cambridge Analytica to create an algorithm that identified potential voters online and then utilised social media to bombard them with “fake news.”
One of the selling points of Brexit was to strike back at the “liberal metropolitan elite”, referring to Londoners who enjoy the fruits of the economic shifts at play. Here, we encounter more brutal irony in that this point was sold by those very members of the London metropolitan elite such as the Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg. Neither the hypocrisy nor the campaign’s factual inaccuracies actually mattered because those it targeted were driven by social media into impenetrable echo chambers.
New social media technology has seen people across the political spectrum identify ever more personally with their political views, deaf to information from outside their respective bubbles. Analysis of polls conducted by YouGov, Sky and BES shows that at least 70% of people identify as either “Brexiteers” or “Remainers”, this being a higher proportion than those who identify as either “Conservative” or “Labour”. Even worse are the negative perceptions that each side has of the other such as being “closed-minded” or “hypocritical”, again those perceptions are more harsh than the cross-party perceptions. It is clear that Brexit has made Britain more polarised.
I believe that political echo chambers are undermining healthy discourse and therefore British political institutions. This romantic idea of rational debate determining the candidate citizens choose to represent them in their democracy has eroded. Brexit, a symptom of economic changes, has been the watershed moment demonstrating that. I am not suggesting that rational democracy has been the norm until now as, after all, people were still somewhat polarised beforehand. Rather, I am suggesting that the situation has drastically worsened.
Historically, moments of crisis have seen people resort to tribal political camps. Today, the crisis of inequality saw people resort to tribal Brexiteer and Remainer factions. Furthermore, the environmental crisis and Covid-19 are generating similarly polarised camps. It is moments of crisis that generate new political institutions that evolve to change the status quo. We are in such a moment of change as we speak. A moment where new political institutions and ways of organising and distributing power are forming as you read this. British politics is not yet broken, but it may soon be.