The quest to remake British politics

PITY the disaffected British voter who looks to the autumn conferences for inspiration. Both the main parties are hypnotised by Brexit. Labour, which gathered this week in Liverpool, tried to fudge its position only to fall into more bickering. The Conservatives, who will meet in Birmingham next week, are so divided over Europe that they are openly conspiring to oust their own prime minister. The earthquake of the referendum two years ago has energised Britain’s parties like nothing else—and crowded out debate on everything else.

However, at last there are signs that politicians are starting to think about the direction that Britain should take after it leaves the EU (see Briefing). Some of the fundamental ideas that have underpinned Western governments of all stripes for decades are being questioned from right and left. A party which could come up with persuasive answers would stand to dominate British politics for many years. And just as the Brexit rebellion has been followed by populist revolts in other countries, so the ideas fermenting in Britain may well spread. Some of them are promising; others downright dangerous.

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The Leave campaign’s demand to “take back control” resonated because it applied to more than just Britain’s relationship with Europe. It chimed with those sick of a hyper-centralised state, where feeble councils take marching orders from an out-of-touch London. It tapped into growing anger at the outsourcing of public services to remote and incompetent private companies. It pointed to the firms that bypass employment law by treating staff as “gig” workers with few rights. And it reflected a feeling of impotence in the face of a system of global capitalism which, ten years ago, sent Britain into recession after bankers thousands of miles away mis-sold securities that no one, including themselves, understood.

On becoming prime minister in 2016, Theresa May assured voters that she had heard their cry, and boldly vowed to reshape “the forces of liberalism and globalisation which have held sway…across the Western world.” She has not kept this promise. Her lack of imagination, squandered majority and the all-consuming Brexit negotiations—the ones with her party, rather than the EU—mean that, more than two years on from their great howl, the British people have seen nothing in return. When Brexit day…

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