The breakdown of party government


It has been de rigueur in certain middle class circles to complain about the baleful effect of political parties in government, but nobody appears to be complaining now they have all but disappeared in the chaos hat now seems to be overtaking what used to be known as the UK government.

The collapse of ideological demarcations is most obvious in the Conservative Party, because current divisions go to the heart of the great split that runs through conservatism: nationalism versus trade – and even Jacob Rees-Mogg has been gargling with the way Robert Peel divided the party over free trade in 1846 to save the country.

A similar division opened out before the 1906 landslide victory for the Liberals over imperial preference. One close colleague of prime minister Arthur Balfour described himself as “nailing his colours firmly to the fence”.

It is worth remembering that divisions had reached such a bitter impasse by 1913 that leading Conservatives were working closely with Ulster Unionist to ferment armed rebellion. So if we take these historical parallels too seriously, we need to watch out. It is not impossible to see the circumstances where this history might repeat itself.

Nor are the Tories the only former ideology divided on the Brexit issue. Labour is managing to hold together via a number of increasingly messy compromises. The Lib Dems only appear united because they have entirely lost their Eurosceptic wing in the celtic fringes.

I have to say I feel increasingly frustrated, not just the failure of the Conservative Party to provide leadership, but any of the three wings in the Brexit (stay in, hard and soft) to understand anything of each other’s points of view.

One side believes the European Commission is a malevolent organisation, bent on undermining UK interests, and that we therefore need to make economic sacrifices to escape their clutches. The other side believes they are saints, and that the European Union is a force for peace and harmony in the world, despite appearances to the contrary, and the only thing that matters is that we stay inside.

There is a third position which suggests that the UK economy is so vital that we have to bind ourselves for the foreseeable future to European rules which we have no say over at all (Theresa May’s current position).

All three of these positions are impossible. The only way out, if there is one, is for the three sides to make a bold leap of imagination. In short, we need someone who can formulate  a way forward – not a compromise: it is too late far that – but something the nation might unite around.

Unfortunately, we have bred a political elite who don’t think beyond the game they believe that politics is. I hope that the time ill come, when we have crawled away from this with the watershed behind us, when the electorate will take a terrible revenge on the political generation that brought us to what increasingly looks like a national humiliation.

Once the damage has been done, and we have cleared out the politicians who caused it – or failed to take adequate measures to prevent it – then perhaps we can then do what the nation does best: exhaustingly and expensively dragging victory from the jaws of defeat. Because, if it is Dunkirk all over again, the old guard has to go pretty quickly…

Help us lay the intellectual foundations for a new radical politics. Sign up to get email notifications about anything new in this blog. See also our new book: Backlash: Saving globalisation from itself.

Rate this post!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Robert Johnston says

    I believe there is a a sizeable group who would be for staying in the EU and working for reforms in accountability, responsibility etc., if only time was taken to think it through. There have been attempts to articulate this is what is left of a quality press in the UK ( notably the FT and The Economist). The “three wings” in the article are caricatures but it is correct in identifying lack of effective leadership which is missing now as it was leading up to the referendum.

  2. Stephen Gwynne says

    I’d like you to clarify what you actually mean when you say there is no leadership. Why does that matter when you have inclusive democracy.

    This takes me to my second point regarding your utterly false caricatures.

    Hard Brexit = wishing to reconfigure UK economy towards processing cheaper non-eu raw materials for export markets. A strategy which is thwarted by EU treaties.
    Soft Brexit = democratic management over all UK policy areas including relationship with the EU.
    Soft Remain = EU reform with more democratic inclusivity including democratically chosen constitutions.
    Hard Remain = greater centralisation of the EU federal project.

    The Chequers plan delivers
    1. Democratically managed UK borders
    2. Democratically managed UK economy
    3. Democratically managed relationship with the EU

    and with the common rule book maintains EU standards and protections.

    In this respect she is showing leadership for a soft Brexit that combines the concerns of soft remainers.

    Does your criticism of her leadership mean you are a hard remainer. If a soft remainer where is your EU reform plan. Two years and not a single reforming word.

Leave a Reply

The Author
Latest Related Work
Follow Us