Between 2014 and 2019, there were three upsurges that attempted to break the mold of British politics: the Scottish independence movement, the campaign for Brexit, and the mobilization around Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party. They sought, respectively, to shrink the borders of the United Kingdom, to sever its links with the European Union, and to overturn the social settlement that has governed its class relations since the 1980s.
Their combined effect was to generate a political crisis such as Britain had not seen for decades, with its governing institutions effectively paralyzed for months at a time. The unresolved Scottish question is likely to remain a source of contestation over the years to come. But the outcome of the 2019 general election simultaneously buried Corbynism and ensured that Brexit would go ahead on terms dictated by Boris Johnson and the right wing of the Conservative Party.
The fact that these challenges unfolded more or less simultaneously was no coincidence. They all came in response to long-term dysfunctions of the British political system and its governing parties, which the economic crash of 2008 had greatly exacerbated, and they interacted with one another throughout the years of crisis. The campaign for Scottish independence, which requires careful study in its own right, was located exclusively in one part of the UK that has its own distinct political culture. In what follows, I will concentrate on the relationship between Labour and Brexit under Corbyn’s leadership, which was crucial for the fate of both, but which remains poorly understood in Britain itself, let alone the wider world.
Johnson’s triumph at the end of 2019 could not have happened without a convergence of interests between right and center in British politics that transcended their divisions over Brexit. When push came to shove, the leaders of these political tendencies joined forces to ensure the defeat of a left-wing project that appeared capable of forming a government. Johnson’s Brexit deal was a price that centrist politicians and opinion formers gladly paid in order to marginalize the socialist left and regain control of the Labour Party.