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Analysis
Europe's fragmentation effect

Europe's fragmentation effect

Referendum could transform party political system

by Meghnad Desai in London

Thu 21 Apr 2016

The official campaign is on. Claims are being made about the economic costs and benefits of Stay or Leave. Since we do not even know to any degree of finality the UK's level of income in the last two years, how anyone can come up with a single number for costs or benefits is beyond me. Numbers no doubt change and confuse. The more important issue is not the economic effects of the vote, but whether the referendum could break up the political party system in ways we have not yet foreseen.

Think of the way 'Europe' has already affected British politics. The 1981 Limehouse declaration by the four Labour party leaders who defected to found the Social Democratic party was the result of a quarrel with their mother party over Europe. Now, 35 years on, the Conservative party is split down the middle over the same issue.

There is history here as well. It was the desire of William Gladstone, the British prime minister, to legislate Home Rule for Ireland which split the Liberal party in the 1880s. Those opposed to Home Rule – Unionists as they called themselves – defected and joined the Conservative party, which added the tag Unionist to its title. Joseph Chamberlain's defection was pivotal.

The way the in/out issue is being discussed one would think it is a purely domestic issue: nothing to do with the outside world. But there is alarm elsewhere. No one can believe the British can be seriously disregarding the interests of the rest of the world. The Americans are sufficiently worried for their former Treasury secretaries to have written to warn us about the consequences of Brexit. President Barack Obama arrives here today to reinforce that message.

But we are navel-gazing. We don’t care what happens to the rest of the world and we won't listen to anyone else. Even so, we should think of our own interests.

Suppose Leave wins. As Kenneth Clarke, the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, has said, British Prime Minister David Cameron 'would not last 30 seconds' as leader of his party. People are assuming life would return to normal with a contest for the Tory leadership. But why should that be so? This quarrel has been going on since Margaret Thatcher resigned.

An alternative scenario. Stay wins. Brexiteers in the Tory party revolt and leave, and found a Freedom for Great Britain party. The UK Independence party joins them. The 'Stayers' become the rump Conservative party. There is a no confidence motion in parliament. Cameron would need Labour support to survive. If Labour joined the right-wing Tories (as it did under former leader Ed Miliband to scuttle House of Lords reform) along with the Scottish National party, Cameron could lose despite the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

But Labour could split too, as it has been itching to do under Jeremy Corbyn, its left-wing leader. Blairite and soft left Labourites would join the pro-European Tories to form a new political party – the British People's party. The handful of Liberal MPs could also come on board. The right-wing Tories and left Labour would stay separately in opposition. As with Home Rule, the British party system will be changed.

If Leave wins and Cameron refuses to go, much the same scenario could unfold. Cameron's own backbenchers bring a no confidence motion against him. The Tories split. The bulk of the Labour party supports him and the SNP abstains. Cameron stays but his party splits. The Blairite wing of the Labour party sees this as their chance to escape from Corbyn and Momentum, the pro-Corbyn, pro-Labour grassroots political movement – they could join a party well-endowed with funds, pro-European and likely to win. The Cameron Tories will welcome Labour as they would acquire reach in Wales, the north of England and Scotland.

Either way, the referendum may transform the party political system. It may not. But if it did, that would not be so bad either.

Prof. Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This is No.39 in the series.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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