Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Brexit and the December 2019 UK Election: A New Political Schism

By Magda SmithPublished July 3, 2020

The Brexit vote and the December 2019 UK election mark a new value divide in politics between global identity and openness and national identity and patriotism. The consequences of this divid
The Brexit vote and the December 2019 UK election mark a new value divide in politics between global identity and openness and national identity and patriotism. The consequences of this divide may determine the values of our era.

On December 12th, 2019, the United Kingdom held a much-awaited general election, the outcome of which marked a decisive turn in the United Kingdom’s attempt to leave the European Union. In December 2019, the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, won a landslide victory, securing 365 parliamentary seats in an election that in the view of analysts and voters on both the left and right showed an emerging new British political and philosophical schism. Swathes of voters abandoned the Labour Party despite Labour largely maintaining its economic policies from prior election cycles. As indicated through these voting patterns, Brexit was the dominating factor alongside the issues of democracy, national sovereignty, and Britain’s place in the world, and many voters viewed economics as less important.

The emerging new political value divide is first affecting Britain, but it will soon affect the United States and the world. This development is already affecting Europe, as similar national debates are emerging that center around cultural issues—primarily immigration, globalization, democracy, and the nation-state—relegating economic issues to a less important status. Depending on the extent to which pro-EU or anti-EU viewpoints convince European voters, the European Union could within the next decade fade from prominence or become stronger than ever. Either way, a main consequence of Brexit is the emergence of a new set of primary political questions for citizens of Europe, America, and the world to ask themselves: What is the role of the nation-state? How much globalization is inevitable? What limits, if any, should be placed upon immigration? What is the right balance between national sovereignty and global citizenship? Voters’ answers to these questions will determine the future not only of Europe, but of the world.

The December election demonstrated a new relationship between culture and economics in the eyes of voters. Yascha Mounk writes in left-leaning magazine The Atlantic, “On paper, the conditions were ripe for a Labour victory. The Conservative Party has been in power for nine years. Johnson is controversial; according to most polls, his popularity ratings are significantly underwater. Although he promised to lead the country out of the European Union by October 31, alienating the half of the country that would like to remain in the EU, he failed to do so, disappointing the half of the country that wants to leave.” Mounk argues that although Johnson’s party appeared unlikely to maintain their power, let alone gain a majority, culture trumped economics—and the economic factors that made Labour an attractive party faltered. Traditionally the coalition of Labour supporters was held together by its economic philosophy, its popularity among left-leaning doctors, teachers, and students, and its heart of working-class voters. However, the cohesion of Labour Party supporters, traditionally from many class backgrounds but with similar interests and a shared philosophy, has been damaged by the surging importance of cultural issues above economic ones, Mounk writes.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party during the December election, disagrees. In a piece titled “We won the argument, but I regret we didn’t convert that into a majority for change,” Corbyn argues that the primary reasons for Brexit and for the December election were economic. He writes that the financial crash of 2008 left the political system in chaos and although his economic policies were best, the election result was due to “cynicism among many people who know things aren’t working for them, but don’t believe that can change.” Voters’ economic concerns would have been better addressed by Labour, he argues, but were not, because the British electorate did not choose to make the necessary leap towards radical solutions to inequality. Corbyn concludes that despite the loss, the Labour Party will “continue to work for a more equal and just society, and a sustainable and peaceful world.”

Many “Leave” supporters were not impressed with Corbyn’s explanation (or, in their view, his lack thereof). In an article titled “Accept it Remainers, you’ve lost,” Brexit supporter Douglas Murray analyzes the December election, observing a new national debate which places greater weight on cultural issues—particularly democracy, immigration, and the nation-state—than on economic ones. The election result, Murray argues, was a response from the electorate to politicians who had decided that their understandings of Brexit were so much greater and their opinions so much superior that their views should override democracy. “If elected representatives not only refuse to do what the public ask, but also promise that they will ignore the public in perpetuity, then it is not surprising if the public take the view that the normal democratic process has effectively been suspended and that business as usual can no longer be pursued,” he writes.

According to “Leave” supporters, the Brexit vote stemmed from voters’ desire to determine all of their laws and policies democratically and, on a deeper level, to protect a form of British national identity (ranging from the British flag to parliamentary democracy) which they perceive as under threat from the European Union. According to “Remain” supporters, opposition to Brexit stems from several factors, including concern for the probable damage that leaving the European Union would cause to the national economy and greater value placed on ideals of global citizenship and openness to the rest of the world. These new political debates, pushed into the mainstream from the "Leave" direction, stem not primarily from economics but from issues of culture and worldview—often from two bifurcated lenses through which people view the world and two opposing visions for the future. These visions, hotly debated across Europe and the United States, will determine the political, philosophical, and economic future of Europe and the world. Depending which vision wins on a global scale, the 21st century may be looked back upon as the century of nation-states or the century of global citizenship. 

The philosophical divide sweeping Europe is one between global identity and national identity. Opponents of Brexit often find greater value in symbolic connection to the rest of Europe through membership in the European Union and view a British national identity as at best isolationist, antiquated, and close-minded and at worst racist and imperialist. Brexit supporters often value Britishness above European-ness; they view British identity and patriotism as positive and worth preserving. Analysts from the left and right agree that Brexit and the December 2019 election both showed the British electorate’s diverging sets of values and political goals, marking a new relationship between economic and cultural issues as the primary contributors to voting decisions. Questions of culture, particularly regarding global identity versus national identity, freedom of movement versus tighter immigration restrictions, and global governance versus the nation-state now take precedence over economic questions in the eyes of many British voters. The consequences of this new political schism will continue to shape British, European, American, and global politics far into the future, for they will determine whether the era into which we are emerging will become one defined by the values of global identity and openness or by those of national identity and patriotism.