Burning the house to save the furniture

Burning the house to save the furniture

I am sure many of you remember Felipe Gonzalez, that popular Spanish socialist prime minister who besides helping his country to acquire a functioning democracy was also the one who brought Spain into the European Economic Community and later the EU. 

Gonzales, the historical leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), made an interesting comment about U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who is currently at the center of an unprecedented political storm: “He burnt the house, trying to save the furniture,” he said.

To my mind, last year’s election which again brought the Conservatives to power was the start of the crisis that we have observed this year. In the May 2015 general elections, British Conservatives increased their power gaining 36.9 percent of the electorate, while Labor gained just 30.4 percent; the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), former partners of the Conservatives, were almost crushed, winning just eight seats, while the nationalist right U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) got an impressive 12.6 percent although its leader, Nigel Farage, failed to be elected. And the biggest surprise of all, the Scottish National Party (SNP), under Nicola Sturgeon, polled 4.7 percent winning 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, even though in 2014 55.3 percent of Scots voted “No” for leaving the United Kingdom in order to become an independent country. 

Last year’s results caused the resignation of three party leaders: Ed Miliband from the Labor Party, Nick Clegg from the Lib Dems and Farage from the UKIP. The results were seen as a personal triumph for Cameron, who promised to put the country together again as “one nation” and curiously predicting that Britain was on the brink “of something special” - now, of course seen as an ominous prediction. 

What happened in one year? Lots. Cameron tried to deliver his promise of “keeping Britain together” after the shock of the emergence of the Scots on the political field and had to appease the nationalists of his own party. The right flank of Conservatives increasingly using narratives echoing the isolationist nationalist ideas of UKIP, forced Cameron to an increasingly anti-Brussels rhetoric. He tried to renegotiate his country’s relationship with the EU but, in reality, it was more to consolidate his power in his own party. He miscalculated the impact that these ideas may have had on the older, less educated, non-urban, isolated electorate that had already seen the effects of the economic cuts of a tight budget on their lives and had blamed it on “immigration from Europe.” 

Last year’s elections struck a huge blow to Labor, too. They lost large chunks of their power in Scotland and placed all their hopes on a new leader whose credentials of “sticking to his original leftist ideas” were his main attractive point. 

But, the date of the EU referendum came too soon for Jeremy Corbyn. He could not establish himself in a deeply divided, party especially on the issue of Europe. And it was his ambivalent stance and slow reflexes on the question of the referendum that may now cost him his leadership. That may lead to another painstaking process in search of an ideological identity for a party once a dominant force in Britain. 

I think that there is a deeper problem with Britain which has more to do with discordance between society and the political parties they purport to represent it. And that is more serious than its relations with Europe.