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Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics

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The role of opaquely-funded, right-wing think tanks, pressure groups, and lobby groups in the Brexit saga has been foregrounded recently. This is partially due to the surprisingly central role the Jacob Rees-Mogg-fronted European Research Group (ERG) has come to attain in the lead up to the original date for Britain leaving the EU and calls to revoke Article 50.[1] The longer history of such groups in British politics is underappreciated, however.

Think tanks and pressure groups played a role in the Leave campaign, though their influence is impossible to evaluate. Their efforts were only one part of the much wider array of forces presenting the Leave case and attempting to convince the electorate.[2] Aside from politicians and political parties – such as anti-EU Tory backbenchers, UKIP, and a smattering of Labour Lexit campaigners – sections of the British media, especially the tabloid press, also played a central role.[3] .

However, it is by defining how the withdrawal agreement should be managed, and the direction of Britain afterwards once outside of EU, that think tanks and pressure groups have been most influential. Different groups see Brexit as providing an opportunity for the radical overhaul of British society. Lexit advocates see it as an opportunity to reform Britain on more social democratic – or even socialist – grounds.

This, however, is wildly utopian. Unsurprisingly, the debate about how to reshape Britain post-Brexit among Leavers has come to be dominated by right-wing – often free market – voices, such as think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute that are ideologically close, and often directly linked, to leading Brexiteers.[4] They see Brexit as a means of escaping EU regulations, enabling their ideal small-state, free trade Britain. This often joins with nationalist concerns. Some can even be plausibly described as nostalgic for empire: seeking Commonwealth nations as replacement trade partners is an obvious example. Such concerns are central to many in UKIP and the Conservatives, exemplified by Jacob Rees-Mogg having attended the annual dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, an organisation with a history of hard-line nationalism that veers into racism.[5]

Small groups focused on thrashing out policy, engaging in propaganda, and allowing politicians and ideological allies to interact have always been a feature of politics. Ginger groups, parliamentary committees, and dining and debating societies have been central to modern British politics.[6] But the growth of think tanks and similar organisations led to new, more professionalised forms. More funding can be directed at promoting certain causes, allowing teams of researchers and campaigners to be employed full time to both craft policies and political rhetoric and to build and maintain political and media networks to spread their ideas.

There was a boom after World War II. Right-wing think tanks and industry groups began to grow in number and influence as part of a ‘counterrevolution’ aimed at reversing the post-war Labour government’s social democratic reforms which had ushered in Keynesianism, a mixed economy, and the welfare state.

However, such groups began to emerge decades prior. The early twentieth century struggle between free trade and protectionism was a key moment, and an instance of political conflict with interesting resonances with Brexit.

It began in earnest with Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform campaign, championing imperial preference.[7] In one sense this was the opposite of Brexit, calling for Britain to become more closely enmeshed in an economic union, rather than leaving one. However, like with Brexit, there was also a deeper cultural aspect. Whereas those promoting Brexit value British identity and want to avoid becoming more politically and culturally tied to wider Europe, many proponents of imperial preference saw it as a way to rebuild a shared identity between imperial nations, particularly with the white-majority Dominions that had been granted political autonomy.

Chamberlain founded the Tariff Reform League in 1903,[8] and there were a number of industry groups which pushed for protectionism such as the Empire Development Union (EDU) and the Empire Industries Association (EIA). The Conservative politician Leo Amery played a key role, helping set up and manage the Imperial Fund, which covertly financed a range of organisations including the Trade Union Tariff Reform League.[9]

Free traders had their own organisations, such as the Free Trade Union. Whether they were decisive in nurturing popular support for free trade, or conversely a manifestation of popular feeling, Britain at the opening of the twentieth century has convincingly been described as having been a ‘Free Trade Nation’. Some of those involved in these efforts would go on to play key roles in setting up post-war free market think tanks and industry pressure groups such as Aims in Industry.

Elections fought over free trade vs protectionism resulted in Conservative electoral defeats in 1906 and 1923, but the protectionist pressure groups continued their efforts, while large sections of the press heavily pushed the policy.[10] By 1932, imperial preference was introduced at the Ottawa Conference. Whether the electorate had been swayed is hard to say as opinion polls had not yet been introduced and there was no referendum.[11] Yet politicians who favoured the policy believed – or could claim – they now had a mandate.

After Ottawa, groups such as the EDU and EIA rolled back their activities. The future course of action was relatively straightforward and decided directly by the executive.

Brexit is different. Only a stark choice between Remain and Leave was offered in the referendum, even though the possibilities for what happens after are much more open-ended. This has allowed right-wing political groups that had campaigned for Leave to assume an influential position.[12] This is not surprising given the rise in importance of such organisations, their close links to most of the leading Brexiteers, and the increasing impact of ‘dark money’ over politics.

Patriotic and free trade ideologies are combined in the Brexit visions of the most prominent Leavers. Somewhat ironically, it seems the two opposing sides of the free trade versus (imperial) patriotism struggle which led to the rise of the modern think tank and pressure group in Britain are now fused, and pushing for the same outcome.

Aaron Ackerley is an Associate Tutor at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed his Wolfson Foundation funded PhD thesis at Sheffield, titled Economic Ideas in the Interwar British Daily Press. It examines the contention that knowledge is power by analysing the specific ways in which economic ideas were created, reformulated, and transmitted by journalists. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

Related Stories

Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit by Eirini Karamouzi

The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz by Liam Liburd

 

[1] This would put on hold, or even provide the possibility of cancelling, Brexit. The ERG is a Parliamentary research support group, consisting of a group of Conservative MPs which have used hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money to fund its activities. However, it fits into a wider pattern of opacity that is the feature of many think tanks and pressure groups, with the ERG refusing to publicly reveal its membership list. There are also questions concerning its wider sources of funding, and many of its leading figures are closely connected to prominent right-wing free tanks and pressure groups.

[2] One of the more contentious elements have been claims of foreign interference in the referendum campaign, both state-backed as in the case of Russian propaganda and by private interests such as the US billionaire Robert Mercer. The latter has cultivated his own network of think tanks and alternative media companies, as well having financed Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm implicated in the breaking of electoral law.

[3] Tabloid newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were powerful champions of Leave, and decades of anti-EU stories featuring in their pages, many often being grossly inaccurate, helped lay the foundation for the Leave victory. The circulation of these titles has been steadily decreasing, which led some commentators to suggest their power was waning, but even aside from influencing their own readerships these titles helped set the wider media agenda, such as coverage across the BBC and especially the influential Today show on BBC Radio 4.

[4] For example, Rees-Mogg was one of the most high-profile champions of the Institute of Economic Affair’s post-Brexit policy plan.

[5] Mogg later said he regretted attending, but the fact he was trading on similar rhetoric and operating in linked networks led to his participation in the first place.

[6] This covers parliamentary committees and affiliated societies that are still important such as the Conservative 1922 Committee or the Labour Fabian Society, as well institutions that were more influential in earlier decades such as the Liberal Reform Society and cross-party dining and debating clubs such as Grillion’s, or imperialist groups such as the Coefficients and the Compatriots Club.

[7] This meant the erection of a protective tariff wall around the British Empire, designed to foster intra-imperial trade at the expense of non-Empire nations.

[8] The proprietors of newly founded popular daily newspapers such as the Daily Mail’s Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) and the Daily Express’s Arthur Pearson became members.

[9] Amery also created a state agency, the Empire Marketing Board, which launched large-scale initiatives aimed at urging consumers to buy Empire goods, utilising poster campaigns and films.

[10] Most notable was the Daily Express, acquired by Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.

[11] Though in the preceding years some opponents had called for one, such as the liberal, free trade supporting newspaper the Manchester Guardian. ‘Books of the Day’, Manchester Guardian, 17 Jul 1930, 7.

[12] These groups are better able to promote their plans about how to reshape Britain’s post-Brexit future as many opponents of Brexit are focused on calling for a second vote.

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The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz

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A number of columnists and commentators have pointed to something disturbingly imperial in some of the arguments in favour of Brexit.[1] Few, however, have looked to the academic study of British national identity or imperial history for answers. By using the work of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz as a lens through which to examine Brexit, we can better perceive the role British imperial history and memory has played in exacerbating the current political situation. Writing long before the 2016 EU referendum, both Gilroy and Schwarz analysed the place of Empire in constructions of British national and racial identity. However, their analyses also happened to contain what have become key features of Brexiteer rhetoric.

In his 2004 book, Postcolonial Melancholia (published in the UK under the title After Empire), Gilroy continued a conversation he had begun back in 1987 with his Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Perhaps most pertinent to the Brexit debate, Gilroy analysed Britain’s enduring obsession with the Second World War, summed up for him by ‘the brash motto’: ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo dah, doo dah’.[2] For Gilroy, the broken record quality of the British collective memory was deeply bound up with decolonisation. The uncomfortable complexities of the imperial past ‘have been collapsed into the overarching figuration of Britain at war against the Nazis, under attack, yet stalwart and ultimately triumphant’.[3]

The image of Britain standing alone in the summer of 1940 has been constantly invoked by Brexit-supporting British ministers. Back in September last year, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘warned’ the EU that if they attempted to force a bad deal on the Prime Minister they risked stirring Britain’s ‘“Dunkirk spirit”’.[4] Earlier in January of that year, a group of pro-Brexit politicians and campaigners were planning to meet with European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels in order to warn him that Britain would resist a bad deal with ‘Churchillian “iron will”’.[5] The simultaneous denial of Britain’s imperial past and obsession with the Second World War can be seen in microcosm in recent controversies over Churchill himself.[6] He is always portrayed in his ‘finest hour’, for instance, and never during his many more reactionary, imperialist moments.

This fixation with the 1940s is significant for Gilroy because it points to what it does not – and cannot – express: prideful regret at the loss of Empire tinged with discomfort and shame about the actual record of imperial governance. Signs of this stifled colonial past sometimes slip out of the very same politicians who invoke Churchill and Dunkirk.[7] On a diplomatic visit to Myanmar in 2017, Churchill biographer and Brexiteer Boris Johnson was bizarrely unable to contain a recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Road to Mandalay’.[8] But as Gilroy noted, these postcolonial parapraxes can also be altogether darker, finding expression in the politics of xenophobia.[9]

The unspoken fear of being colonised or becoming a colony based on ‘the terrifying folk knowledge’ of what that actually means in practice, is expressed in a desire to expel immigrants and, in this case, shun Europe.[10] At one end this is behind the fears of Johnson and other Brexiteers who speak of Britain being doomed ‘to the status of a colony’ by a ‘bad’ withdrawal deal.[11] At the other, it can be seen in Leave.EU’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which attempted to conjure up dystopian images of Britain’s white population reduced to a minority, submerged by a black or brown ‘mass’.[12]

In his 2011 Memories of Empire, Volume 1: The White Man’s World, Bill Schwarz provides an account of the British experience of decolonisation. He argues that the highly racialised politics of British white settler colonies, especially Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), rebounded on the metropole. Settler political leaders like president of the Central African Federation Roy Welensky (1956-1963) and Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith (1964-1979) portrayed their fellow settlers as authentic white Britons in conflict with out of touch, metropolitan liberal elite in league with black anti-colonial nationalists.[13] During the 1960s, the Conservative New Right, notably the Monday Club (founded 1961) and, infamously, Enoch Powell began to talk about an imagined British people in similar terms.[14] Schwarz writes that they came to believe that:

The governors of the land lived faraway… they were out of touch with the real feelings of the English people… and, wittingly or unwittingly, they were working to destroy the nation. The rulers, in other words, had become the enemies of all true English men and women.[15]

Though Powell and the Monday Club were reacting to post-war Commonwealth immigration, Schwarz’s summary of their arguments could easily apply to Theresa May’s recent controversial statement on Brexit.[16] More broadly, this colonial conception of a metropolitan liberal elite, out of touch and in league with the ‘other’, became a familiar epithet of the Leave campaign and pro-Brexit sections of the British press.[17] This perhaps unsurprising when many of the main spokespeople for the Leave campaign were born or raised in the white enclaves where this kind of politics developed, in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.[18]

The point of all this is not that academic writing on British imperialism and national identity can be used to prove that all Leave voters are racist or hanker for ‘good old days’ of British imperialism. The work of Gilroy and Schwarz helps reveal the un-exorcised ghosts of British imperialism lurking within the on-going campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. Whether in the talk of a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ or metropolitan liberal ‘Enemies of the People’, the morbid symptoms of a nation that has failed to reckon with its past are readily observable. Brexit was not caused by the British Empire but the unresolved imperial past has worked to intensify and accelerate a constitutional crisis in which Brexit negotiations have been driven by a series of delusions about the national past instead of present political realities.

Liam Liburd is in his 3rd year PhD studies with the University of Sheffield. His thesis is titled “Radical Right, Imperial, White: Imperialism, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918 to 1968”. His research focuses on the relationship between the British Radical Right and the British Empire. An article of his, on ideas of imperial masculinity in the British Union of Fascists, was recently published in Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies. He has broader interests in gender and cultural historical approaches to British and imperial history in the twentieth century.

Related Stories

Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit by Eirini Karamouzi

Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics by Aaron Ackerley

 

[1] Gary Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’, The Guardian, 3 February,

2018; Fintan O’Toole, ‘The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit’, The Guardian, 16  November, 2018.

[2] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 117.

[3] Ibid., p. 97.

[4] Gordon Rayner, ‘Jeremy Hunt warns EU a bad Brexit deal will stir Britain’s “Dunkirk spirit”’, The Daily Telegraph, 30 September, 2018.

[5] James Rothwell, ‘“We will channel Churchill” – Brexiteers to warn Michel Barnier of “iron will” to walk away from bad deal’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 January, 2018.

[6] Kieran Andrews, ‘MSP defends claim Churchill was racist’, The Times, 29 January, 2019.

[7] Felix Klos, ‘Boris Johnson’s Abuse of Churchill’, History Today, 1 June 2016; Harry Yorke, ‘Boris Johnson likens Brexit dilemma to Churchill’s defiance of Hitler’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 December, 2018.

[8] Robert Booth, ‘Boris Johnson caught on camera reciting Kipling in Myanmar temple’, The Guardian, 30 September, 2017.

[9] Gilroy, After Empire, pp. 102, 110-111.

[10] Ibid., p. 100.

[11] ‘Boris Johnson says Brexit deal will make Britain an EU colony’, Reuters, 3 October, 2018.

[12] Heather Stewart & Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police’, Guardian, 16 July, 2016.

[13] Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Volume 1 – The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 347, 398-399.

[14] Powell was an outspoken Eurosceptic and while the Monday Club was divided over the issue of European Economic Community, the organisation contained a stridently anti-Europe wing, see Schwarz, White Man’s World, pp. 432-433.

[15] Schwarz, White Man’s World, p. 398.

[16] ‘PM Statement on Brexit: 20 March 2019’.

[17] Claire Phipps, ‘British newspapers react to judges’ Brexit ruling: ‘Enemies of the people’, 4 November, 2016.

[18] Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’.

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Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit

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Brexit is one, albeit the most consequential chapter in a tale that has spanned decades. Britain’s ‘awkward’ relationship with European integration has a long and complex history. Advancing a thesis of ‘the awkward partner’ neither accepts the teleological tale that Britain was bound to leave the EU nor that the country’s ‘awkwardness’ towards Europe has been ‘exceptional’- on the contrary, it has been shared by others at different stages of European integration.

The difference is that British difficulties with the European project has been consistent and long-standing: from non-involvement in the original EEC, then a tortuous road to membership; once inside the Community, beset by budgetary hassles, Britain secured opt-outs from Schengen and the Eurozone whilst elite and the public opinion stood indifferent or most times negatively disposed.

A historical perspective can contribute to the understanding of this difficult marriage and gives us an insight into the reasons for the upcoming divorce. Without negating the immense value of the ever-growing political science literature on Brexit and on why the Brits voted to leave [1], a historical account will attempt to trace how Britain slowly and painfully advanced in Churchillian terms from ‘of but not with’ to arguably ‘with but not of’ Europe.

Hunting in vain for a role in Europe

Historians have offered contrasting explanations for Britain’s turn towards the EEC and its first application in 1961 ranging from commercial interests to political considerations. Moreover, in the 1960s, there was a hope that EEC membership would bolster prevalent perceptions of a ‘sense of relative decline’ in UK’s international reach and power. As Tomlinson has noted ‘declinism was an ideology, not a straightforward description of reality’. [2] Britain’s sluggish growth – not by historical records but in relation to the comparatively higher growth rate of EEC economies – meant that ‘by 1950 the difference in per capita GDP between the UK and Six [EEC countries] was 28%. Seven years later, when the Treaty of Rome was signed, it stood at 15%, and in 1961 when Britain applied, the difference had reached 10%.’[3]

In January 1963, several days after General de Gaulle’s veto, Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary: ‘the great question remains: What is the alternative to the European Community? If we are honest we must say there is none.’[4] Echoing similar disillusionment, but several years later, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson would also come to acknowledge how far economic realities dictated Britain’s move towards the Community.

The French, however, still with de Gaulle at the helm, would not even permit the enlargement talks to commence – pointing to Britain’s financial problems and capitalizing on Wilson’s decision to devalue the pound in October 1966 and its balance of payment deficit.  By the time Edward Heath became prime minister in 1970 and revived the failed second application, Britain’s political elite hoped that joining the Community would achieve multiple goals. Rather than being relegated to the sidelines, Britain would be in a position to reap the economic and political benefits of Community membership. Importantly, accession to the Community would allow Britain to catch up to the superior economic performance the Six had experienced over the 1960s.

An awkward partner?

Stephen George rightly argues that Britain ‘did not participate in the most successful period of the history of the Communities’ (the 1960s) and so ‘membership did not come to have the popular positive connotations in Britain that it had in the founder states’.[5] Britain’s timing was poor, and an important factor in Britain’s awkwardness towards Europe’s.

The 1975 EC referendum contributed to Britain’s awkward partner status because, despite the vote in favour of membership, Britain was not transformed into a straightforward partner for the Community. On the contrary, it cemented the use and abuse of the European issue as an instrument of domestic political management.

Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher ‘there was a significant reconfiguration’ of Britain’s relationship with the EC. The Thatcher government went through a multitude of highs and lows in its relationship with the Community; the Prime Minister herself was at the epicentre. Tumultuous periods were common, for example, the battle over British contributions to the EC budget.

More constructive engagement followed in relation to the Single European Act of 1986. The Act fulfilled Thatcher’s ambition of a Single Market within the Community and many applauded her on the triumphant exportation of Thatcherism to Europe. Towards the end of her time in Downing Street, fierce confrontations took place both within the Thatcher government over its European policy and between Thatcher and the EEC.

The end of the 1980s shed any illusions of the prospect of exerting leadership within the EEC, an ambition that was best summed up in Wilson’s comments in 1967: ‘if we couldn’t dominate that lot, there wasn’t much to be said for us’.[6] Britain’s insular policy, lack of enthusiasm and minimalist approach limited its influence within the Community, that never came close to the Franco-German engine of European integration.

However Thatcher’s most important legacy, however, was breaking once and for all the declinist narrative spiral of the 1960s and 1970s. Europe progressively ceased to be the medicine to British malaise as its economy far from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ had by ‘mid-1990s outperformed the leading economies of Western Europe by most measures.[7] This reversal of fortunes and the slow demise of the feeling ‘of no alternative to membership’  patched a hole in one of the most central arguments in selling the pro-European narrative, and was never truly replaced.  The lack of appeal of economic interest was concomitant to other European developments.

The Maastricht treaty of 1992, its aftermath revisions and the ‘big bang enlargement’ to central and Eastern Europe ushered in a period of deeper integration, mass migration and further pooling of national sovereignty, marking a shift within the wider European public opinion. Things were worse for Britain ‘where few have taken the European project to heart, as indicated by their low level of willingness to acknowledge a European identity’.[8]

Far from saving Britain, the Eurozone debt crisis and mass migration dealt the final blow to the already little relish for the European task and amplified British Euroscepticism. Brexit and the referendum result of 2016 was a result of short-term political and economic developments as well as longer-term socio-demographic changes in the electorate. But it’s hard to deny that the fuel that the Eurosceptics ignited in 2016 had been accumulated in these decades-long love-hate relationship with Europe.

Eirini Karamouzi is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield. Her main research interests lie in the history of European integration and the Cold War,  she is co-director of the Cultures of the Cold War Network and editor of Cold War History Journal. Her book, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement (2014), and edited volume Balkans in the Cold War (2017) are available through Palgrave Macmillan. You can find her on twitter @EiriniKaramouzi.

Related Stories

The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz  by Liam Liburd

Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics by Aaron Ackerley

 

[1] Sara Hobolt (2016), ‘The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23, 1259-1277;

[2] Jim Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-War Britain (Harlow: Longman, 2001)

[3] http://voxeu.org/article/britain-s-eu-membership-new-insight-economic-history

[4] Cited in Vernon Bognador, ‘Footfalls echoing in the memory. Britain and Europe: the historical perspective’, International Affairs 81:4 (2005), 693.

[5] George, An Awkward Partner, p.5.

[6] Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (Oxford University Press, 2018), 47

[7] Charles Grant (2008). Why is Britain Eurosceptic? Centre for Europeanreform essay, published online.

[8] John Curtice, ‘Why Leave won the UK’s EU referendum’, Journal of Common Market Studies 55 (2017), 21

 

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Party Politics, Realignment and Brexit: Can the American Civil War Teach us Anything?

Andrew Heath Blog

A recurring historical analogy in discussions of Brexit over the past few months has been the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s decision to back repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In lowering the price of grain, he split his party: an eventuality that Jacob Rees Mogg, among others, has warned Theresa May to avoid. At the very same moment Peel was driving a wedge through the Tories, though, another telling comparison to our present condition was taking shape across the Atlantic, where the future of U.S. land annexed from Mexico brought the question of slavery to the fore of electoral politics, and eventually led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Like Europe, the ‘slavery question’ in the United States provides a case in point as to how the most divisive of issues can be shielded from party politics, yet how, with remarkable suddenness, they can come to occupy the centre of political debate.

To see battles over slavery and Europe as historical equivalents, of course, would be deeply problematic. Whatever the stakes in the current crisis the human toll pales into insignificance when set against the fate of the four million black southerners forcibly held as property across the US South. But the political dynamics, at least, bear some striking similarities.

Prior to 1846, slavery, much like the Europe question before the referendum, stood on the margins of American party politics. Despite the herculean efforts of black and white abolitionists to make it the great issue of the day, neither of the major political parties had any interest in challenging the status quo. Both the Whigs and the Democrats, after all, had been vying for votes from nearly all-white electorates in the North and South ever since the heyday of so-called ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ in the 1830s. To mobilise around either the expansion or extirpation of slavery would have alienated citizens in one section or the other.

Politicians for sure often had strong feelings about the enslavement of black southerners, and would say as much in their own states, but when it came to fighting national elections the parties were non-committal at best. It was a stance that all but guaranteed slavery’s perpetuation. No wonder many abolitionists saw party politics as a dead end.

Slavery, like Europe in British politics then, divided the parties internally prior to the 1850s, but did not automatically produce what political scientists refer to as a ‘realignment’. Attempts to turn American politics into a battle between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces initially failed as the third parties of abolitionists and their southern critics flickered into life before quickly burning out… In a distorted way, such endeavours resemble the efforts of organizations like UKIP, insofar as they placed pressure on the major parties without forcing a redrawing of party lines. The survival of the Second Party System, as it was known, depended on silencing slavery as a subject of debate. When, from roughly the mid-1850s onwards, that no longer proved possible, the political landscape quickly changed beyond recognition. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 as the figurehead of a new, antislavery Republican Party underscored the transformation. Within a few months southern whites formed their breakaway slaveholding republic.

To understand the roots of the American Civil War we, therefore, need to explain that party realignment. How did slavery move from the margins of American party politics to become its central divide? In the simplest terms, historians have tended to fall into one of two camps to answer that question: ‘fundamentalists’, who see slavery slowly but surely undermining the foundations of the Second Party System, and the ‘revisionists,’ who blame either blundering politicians or political dynamics for the collapse.

The latter often hone in on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: legislation that opened new territory to slaveholders and prompted the formation of the Republican Party. At first glance, a brazen attempt to extend slavery, the measure, on closer scrutiny, can be seen as a ploy on the part of the northern Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas to resolve a political impasse in his party.[1]

Eager to secure southern Democrats’ support for a transcontinental railroad from his home state of Illinois, he offered slaveholders the sop of new territory, while reasoning that soil and climate would prevent them from migrating in sufficient numbers to seize it. By making slavery extension a question for white voters in territories to determine themselves, Douglas believed the divisive issue could be depoliticized at the national level. The result was precisely the opposite: guerrilla warfare soon broke out in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and within a few years electoral politics was pitting North v. South.

When it comes to the Civil War, I lean more towards the fundamentalist line. But if such categories were transposed to Brexit I’d be more inclined to revisionism. The Europe question has simmered in British politics since the 1970s, and has divided both major parties, but it required miscalculations on part of clever politicians to bring it to a raging boil. For Stephen Douglas and the Kansas Nebraska Act in 2016 read David Cameron and the referendum of 2016. Both were seemingly clever manoeuvres to resolve internal party conflict that had unforeseen consequences. The political fallout of Brexit, though, is harder to discern.

Even amid the current chaos, the national parties most united on Europe – UKIP, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats – languish in the polls. No realignment has remade British politics into a struggle between pro- and anti-European parties, and for now at least, the old party lines just about hold. But will that be the case over the next few months? Once slavery did become the major issue in American politics between 1846 and 1854, it quickly tore apart the established parties. Nothing short of a revolutionary war could resolve it. That eventuality may be improbable here, but the party system we have grown up with may not long endure.

Andrew Heath is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches a third-year special subject on the origins of the American Civil War. His book, In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation, will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in February.

[1] Though ‘fundamentalists’ would quite rightly point out that Douglass was responding to pressure from his southern slaveholding colleagues in the Democratic Party.

 

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