Analysis: Why the EU has become the dividing line of Tory politics – even if it costs them the union

Ben Wray

A majority of English Leave voters want Brexit even at the expense of the breakup of the union

THE UK Conservative party conference in Birmingham has been engulfed by a fight over Brexit. Boris Johnson and Theresa May are engaged in a high stakes showdown over whether to pursue the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan or go for a clean break with the EU.

But why has Brexit become such an explosive internal issue for the Conservatives? And has it obscured the importance of the UK union for many?

A faction fight born in failure

The debate over the EU exploded just as the long period of Tory Government – stretching back eight years now – was coming into serious crisis. At the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign she was caught between factional party tensions over the EU on the one hand and mass opposition to the poll tax on the other. Her political demise at the hands of her own party was only the prelude to an explosive faction fight through the 1990’s which soured much of successor John Major’s tenure.

The irony of this situation is that the faction fight broke out at precisely the time that Thatcher’s economic restructuring – marked by deindustrialisation and financialisation – reached its zenith. In the UK neoliberal orthodoxies enjoyed support across the mainstream political spectrum. They had also gained favour In the EU itself and were enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty of 1993.

But just as Thatcherism was becoming established orthodoxy, its adherents were having to face up to its limitations and failures. Amid the triumphalism surrounding liberal capitalism as the USSR broke down, there were clear signs that neoliberalism had failed to address the chronic problems of under investment and low productivity in the UK economy. The poll tax riot further proved that the country had not been reunified. It’s in this context which the new Tory bogeyman in Brussels emerged.

Two parties, not one

For the right of the Tory party (and a growing eurosceptic fringe movement including the likes of a young Nigel Farage) Thatcherism had failed to reach its full potential because it had been hemmed in by EU concerns for a European social contract, for regulations and protections vaunted by EU leaders trying to obscure their own dramatic move to the right.

The Tory Brexiteer back bench and Ukip believe to this day that the EU is a kind of modern USSR – stifling free enterprise that would be unleashed by one last neoliberal push. It has come to redefine their entire world view.

The majority Tory faction, backed by most of the wealthy in British society are well aware that more and yet more economic liberalisation does not solve the economic and social problems that dog the British state.

The fight in the Conservative party over Brexit has reached its ugliest pitch so far. The party conference in Birmingham has seen the main hall and speakers deserted for increasingly fractious fringe meetings.

We are used to hearing that the Labour party is really two parties; one socialist, the other centrist. The Tories now clearly present themselves as two parties – one politically centrist and relatively pro-EU, the other more radically nationalist, economically libertarian and anti-EU.

The union – torn apart by British capitalism?

The national and constitutional crisis of Brexit is testing the contradictions of the UK state in Scotland, which voted by majority to remain in the EU, and in Northern Ireland, where a hard border is made likely by the creation of different trading regimes either side of it.

The pleas at the conference by some party figures that the struggle over the EU is in danger of undermining the Union seem unfashionable. These mainly come from May’s faction, who have in recent months begun to threaten the collapse of the union in the event of a hard or no deal Brexit – a rhetorical claim with little precedent in the history of a party which likes to treat the union as somehow inevitable and everlasting.

Ruth Davidson for instance warned conference the union that really “matters” is the UK union, rather than the EU.

But do Tory party members agree with her? According to new research conducted by Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities, 88 per cent of English Leave voters are prepared to see Scotland leave the UK and 81 per cent prepared to see Northern Ireland destabilised in order to “take back control” through Brexit.

The break up of the union would signal a major decline for the British state. But the cause of Brexit has redefined politics for many in the party of the British ruling elite, and obscured many vital issues.

Picture courtesy of Number 10