by Paul Ostwald

In early June, a poll conducted by the British research institute Opinium suggested that a majority of British voters would support Nigel Farage’s anti-EU “Brexit Party”. With 26 per cent, it would defeat both Labour (22%) and the Conservatives (17%). For the first time in recent history, a third party could carry the vote.  

At first sight, Britain seems to be on a path that some of her European neighbours have already entered. Just as in Italy and France, far-right populism has apparently reached the mainstream and could potentially become the dominant force in politics. On a higher level of abstraction, the fact that Nigel Farage’s party is entirely based on Brexit reveals the extent to which a single issue can completely reconfigure the political landscape of a country. The state of exception, GQ Britain argued, might have become “the new normal”.

Such an analysis, however, is too short-sighted. First, the on-going reconfiguration has more dimensions than the simple narrative of rising of far-right sentiment suggests. The Greens, for example, are the biggest winner of the poll. While the Brexit party had come out on top, the Greens had seen the largest increase in support (+8%). Contrary to Germany, Britain’s Greens have never been a powerful force in politics. Rather than a simple rise of the right, Britain’s two-party system appears unable to contain the diverse opinions that it had so far channeled.

Second, reading a breaking-up of the British political system into the poll could be an exaggeration. If we add up the numbers, the Brexit side might actually have lost vis-à-vis 2016, when the original referendum took place and the Remainers reached 48 per cent. Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens together reach 49 per cent of the vote according to the poll. The three parties have clarified their pro-EU stance. The Conservatives reach another 17 per cent, within which different ‘tribes’have emerged. At least half of them appear to take a pro-European stance. Overall, Remain might thus actually have surpassed the 50 per cent threshold. 

This is not to say that a second referendum might end in favour of Remain. It does, however, suggest that the British political camps might not have changed as much as some believe. For those rooting for liberal democracy, these are good news. In 600 years of parliamentary democracy, Britain has seen its fair share of political reconfigurations. Whether the current shake-up is indeed a lasting matter or a state of exception that passes with Brexit, will have to be seen.