We may be in the middle of a sea-change in politics but how can you tell? We could be just at the beginning. Or the turbulence could subside and business as usual resume. But this time round it is hard to believe that our two major Parties will emerge from their current divisions unchanged. BREXIT now seems set to drivel on for months and continue to prove a powerful stimulus to division, disarray and permanent change.
So should we declare with China’s first Premier, Zhou En Lai, when asked what he thought about the consequences of the French Revolution - or maybe it was the French student uprising of 1968: “it is too early to say”? Should we just shrug and switch off Channel Four news? That is very tempting but it would be a mistake. Beginning, middle or end of a political epoch, the changes now happening are full both of danger and new possibilities. The appearance of a small Independent breakaway group of MPs has potential. The Independent Group (TIG) is already scoring higher than the Lib-Dems in opinion polls, but it is too early to say if these opinions would convert into actual votes.
TIG as now constituted does not, though, provide a new look by replacing the top down Parties and London-based, middle-class politicians. The appointment of Chuka Ummuna as its spokesman (male, independent fee-paying school, solicitor, Streatham constituency), was probably inevitable given the preponderance of eight former Labour MPs. But it gives a sense of déjà vu, maybe heralding a return to the deadlocked policy clashes that got us into the present impasse. How is such a group to reach consensus on policy?
The Labour Party originated as a bottom-up, working class challenge to a two-Party status quo. TIG’s title “Independent” has echoes of another historical group breakaway, the Independent Labour Party. Founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie, it was a breakaway from the Liberal Party attracting those who saw the Liberals failing to champion the cause of the working class. It flew the Marxist flag.
Here comparisons with Umunna become unfair. Hardie was an exceptional and extraordinary man. The illegitimate son of a farm worker in Lanarkshire with a drunk stepfather, he went down the pit aged eleven for ten cruel years, educated himself through night-school, worked for the Evangelical Union, became a trades unionist, and first entered Parliament in 1892. Joining with Ramsay Macdonald in the mixed Labour Representation Committee, Hardie was a key player in the birth of the Labour Party in 1906. The dynamics and direction of the new Independent Group this year could scarcely have been more different. Perhaps it was the obvious class conflict shaping political life in Edwardian Britain that created heroic figures such as Hardie. They knew what they stood for, where they had come from and what they wanted to achieve and had the integrity and commitment to persevere. The past truly is another country.
Austerity, imposed after banks and financial services nearly bankrupted Britain in 2008, polarized today’s politics - not full-frontal class conflict. Under economic pressures, the two major Parties each gave grew their own distinctive extremist Parties within a Party. The extreme Left of the Labour Party took control of the leadership and major intra-Party infrastructure which dominate both political preferment and policy. The majority of Labour members, Corbyn’s famous grassroots, support REMAIN, and a People’s Vote supported by Conference. But this is not Corbyn’s policy. Labour Members of Parliament have problems with their Leave constituents over BREXIT. The extreme Right in the Tory Party hold the Prime Minister and Cabinet to ransom, threatening to vote against them on BREXIT. UKIP entryism keeps more moderate Tories in line on BREXIT and immigration.
The irony of BREXIT is that, on the whole, the highest percentages voting Leave came from constituencies that would be most damaged economically by no deal or Prime Minister May’s fudge-deal. Their Labour representatives in Parliament are therefore in the uncomfortable position of facing hostile local Party members and constituents if they point out the disastrous consequences for them of approving the forms of BREXIT on offer. Their political careers are on the line. Some MPs from Leave constituencies may genuinely think Leave will lead to pastures green and all will be well, all manner of things shall be well. Others don’t, but wish to hold onto their seats. And some, for example Anna Turley, (Redcar in the North East with 66% Leave, 33% Remain) have the integrity and courage to tell it how it is and risk their political futures.
Both Tory and Labour centrists are fond of asserting that their Party is a ‘Broad Church’, a comforting comparison with the Church of England. They are probably unaware of the time in the early Church when bishops trampled each other underfoot, willing to kill and be killed for their version of doctrine. Better for both Parties to think again about proportional representation and let the two extremes form their own Parties and, unprotected, feel the harsh winds of a traditionally conservative British public opinion. We got our main revolution out of our system in the 17th century, and fought against ideological tyrannies in the 20th. We can surely handle extremists better in their own minority Parties. Other European countries are learning how to.
But first, our politicians need to weather today’s divisions, turbulence and change. What should guide them? Firstly, a firm and unwavering commitment to Justice, creating a just – fair - society as the main purpose for engaging in political life. Secondly prudence, knowing which virtue to deploy in dealing with a complex and painful set of decisions. Thirdly, fortitude, remaining faithful to their values despite the obstacles along the way, and overcoming fear for their own futures. These happen to be the first three Cardinal Virtues. But you don’t need to be a Catholic to think they will be at a premium in the coming weeks.