The 'Brexistential' Crisis to Come?

The 'Brexistential' Crisis to Come?

The prospect of the principles of 'Civic Capitalism' being applied in the future to a country still called Britain and still located in the European Union is a dangerously open question.

We write on the eve of a British general election more delicately poised than any in modern democratic history - indeed, quite conceivably, ever. It is far from clear who will 'win', when we will know who has 'won' and, perhaps more significantly, what 'winning' really entails. Conventionally, we think of winning as gaining the most seats, but it is perfectly credible (perhaps even likely) that the victors in this narrow sense will not get to govern. Indeed, what may well matter most in the sifting through the rubble in the aftermath of the election is the capacity to get on with the party that has come third in terms of the number of seats won. This is an election about potential allies (those who might be dissuaded from voting down a Queen's Speech, to be more specific) more than it is about the positions adopted on core issues by the two principal parties, Conservative and Labour.

But this is also one of the most important elections in modern British democratic history - not least, and with appropriate irony, because of the positions adopted on the core issues by the two principal parties! As one of us suggested in a previous blog, this might not look like a very good election to win, but it is simply too important an election to lose. The very future of Britain hangs on its outcome - but it also hangs on its outcome in rather peculiar ways.

It is tempting, for instance, to think that, if Labour 'wins' (in the sense, here, of being able to form some kind of a minority government with, presumably, SNP support of some kind, although that has been denied as an option with increasing force by Ed Miliband over recent days), this will at least resolve the 'Brexit' question for a while - in that neither party is likely to sanction an 'in/out' referendum on EU membership. But, if Labour governs in this way, with either tacit or more formal SNP support, and it has fewer seats than the Conservatives, then it is equally credible that 'Brexit' will come to define the terms of political competition throughout the next parliament - and, crucially and perhaps ominously, the election that will follow. In such a scenario, the likelihood of Cameron being deposed for a more staunchly Eurosceptic leader is extremely high; and with that comes the prospect of a further intensification of the political struggle over Britain's European future at a time when Anglo-Scottish political tensions have grown and are likely to grow still further.

Needless to say, the spectre of a minority Labour administration struggling to implement the still rigid austerity programme to which it has committed itself whilst simultaneously fending off calls for greater fiscal flexibility from its flanks, allegations of governmental illegitimacy from the press and the incessant and ever more intense baying for a 'Brexit' vote from the new Conservative-UKIP alliance of the right is hardly enticing. It is difficult to see this not ending up somehow with the holding of an early election fought largely over the demand for an 'in/out' referendum on EU membership. There would appear to be at least a 50/50 chance of a clear 'out' vote in such a referendum. Such a momentous decision, one can only imagine, would be rapidly followed by a second Scottish independence referendum fought in a very different context to the previous. 'Br-exit' and 'Br-eakup' would seem to go together. In short, even the most ostensibly positive outcome for British political unity (a Labour, rather than a Conservative, minority government) easily generates a scenario that leads directly, perhaps even inexorably, to what we might call a 'Brexistential' crisis.

That this is so owes much to the remarkable consensus on matters of economic policy that now exists between the two principal parties. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies' recent (and at least ostensibly neutral, dispassionate and non-partisan) scrutiny of the party manifestos revealed, whilst there are differences of rhetoric and emphasis (but principally rhetoric), all of the major parties (including the SNP) have committed themselves in this election campaign to public austerity (even if they mean subtly different things by that commitment). Whatever happened, we might plausibly ask, to plan B? There has been minimal talk of rebalancing the economy and virtually no mention of financial market regulation. The key point is that, whilst Labour and the SNP are perhaps more cautious about the resuscitation of the debt-fuelled, consumer-driven growth model that took us over the precipice in 2008, they offer no worked-out alternative - and, indeed, plenty of measures that will actually further stimulate the kind of unstable growth responsible for the crisis in the first place.

What this suggests is that, however momentous this election may prove, it is not momentous because Britain's governing economic paradigm is stake - indeed, arguably it is momentous precisely because it is not! In this election, in which for the most part nothing is certain, what is absolutely clear is that no party has offered us the more civic capitalism for which we at least have argued and which we believe with increasing conviction that Britain as a whole desperately needs. However and by whoever we are ruled in the immediate months ahead, we are very unlikely to see 'the governance of the market, by the state, in the name of the people, to deliver collective public goods, equity and social justice', which is the mantra of our model of Civic Capitalism.

For such a prospect we will have to wait at least one more election - and to hope, and to hope, and to hope again. For whether, by then, there will even exist a Britain (in the singular) that is a member of the European Union to which the principles of civic capitalism could be applied are dangerously open questions.

Also by Professor Colin Hay, Co-director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute

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