19 July 2016

Brexit has overcome the Tory Party’s inertia


For the first time in years, things can be said to be changing in Britain. For over half a decade, during the Cameron era, politics in this country had exhibited a particular sort of inertia. Though the ordinary stuff of government – and the attendant challenges involved with governing – took place, change never seemed to be the order of the day.

Under David Cameron, the British economy appeared to improve and jobs were created – but the national debt went on rising, as it had done under previous administrations; Britain’s armed forces did not participate in any fully-fledged military interventions abroad, despite the intentions of the Prime Minister; and though the country (or parts of it) went to the polls twice in unprecedented referendums over changing the electoral system and the possibility of Scottish independence (both of them serious constitutional questions, each with the potential to usher in new eras of British political history), neither of these eventualities came to pass.

To the untrained eye nothing much happened. Change – the watchword of the Conservative party’s campaign in the 2010 general election – seemed never to materialise, despite such government actions as the institution of same-sex marriage and the passage of legislation such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

This stasis has finally broken in recent months, as a third referendum spelled immense, irrevocable change, and a dramatic handing over of power from one premier to another.

Today, Theresa May chairs her first cabinet meeting, with a selection of ministers that is unrecognisable as the government of last week.

Cameron’s form on referendums had meant that he presided over a country where the fundamentals of political life did not alter, even when the questions at hand threatened to unleash great change. Continuity was maintained despite the chance of wide-ranging political change. The people were given their say, and in the end they voted for more of the same.

The possibility of serious alteration and modification was there, but it was never taken. This paradox – a kind of dynamic inertia – was at the heart of the Cameron ministry. Little had changed, but what had could still be portrayed as at risk. In many ways, this is how Cameron won the 2015 election, which he called ‘the sweetest victory of all’. Though the result was unexpected, it justified staying the course; and that was what millions of voters were led to expect would happen.

In addition, Cameron left many of his ministers in office for the long term, allowing people like Theresa May and George Osborne to remain in post for six years. They gained experience and competence in their jobs, and were largely left to it. This competence – which was an essential part of May’s appeal and one of the reasons she is now Prime Minister – was a substitute for passionate and outwardly exciting reform.

Cameron was and is an accomplished performer without transformative zeal. His plan after the election in 2015 was to remain in office until 2019, not seeking the third term he said would not be ‘sensible’.

The British people voted by a margin of two million for David Cameron and the Conservatives in May 2015; they voted for the stability – economic, political and constitutional – which was promised to them in the muted but effective campaign run by that party, and which was said to be threatened by Ed Miliband and Labour (perhaps in cahoots with the SNP). One year later, chaos is the order of the day and both the government and the constitutional landscape have had radical changes forced upon them.

The remarkable result of last month’s EU referendum cannot be overstated in this regard. Within a day of the result becoming known, Cameron had announced his intention to resign. Within weeks, a new Prime Minister was installed and the previous inhabitant of Number 10 replaced (as well as his chancellor, George Osborne, who would be permitted for wondering what on earth has happened).

The present now represents a serious break from a six year period which appears now to have been an illusory time of imagined inertia. But there is something worthwhile in recognising that sense of stasis, even if it turned out to be nothing more than a kind of collective stupor.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect, History Today and many other international publications.