Last week, Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, signed a letter informing the European Union that her country intended to begin the process of removing itself from the bloc. Now comes the hard part, as May’s government must negotiate with the EU about issues like trade and immigration, as well as outline new rules and regulations for British industry. Already, the signals from European diplomats have been harshly negative; they have no interest in allowing Britain to negotiate favorable deals, which might encourage others to leave the union. Meanwhile, Scottish politicians are angling for a new independence referendum (the Scots largely voted to remain in the European Union), and Northern Irish leaders are worried about what Brexit would mean for the peace process. If all of that weren’t enough, there is also a brewing conflict between Britain and Spain about what Brexit means for the British territory of Gibraltar, located on the Iberian Peninsula. (One former Conservative Party leader said May would be willing to go to war with Spain over the matter.)
To discuss the dire state of Britain today, I spoke by phone with David Runciman, a professor of politics and international studies at Cambridge University, the host of the podcast Talking Politics, and the author, most recently, of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present. He and I had spoken around the time of the Brexit vote last June, and I wanted to hear his impressions of the past nine months in British politics. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the difference between Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, the collapse of the Labour Party, and the biggest danger currently facing democracy.
Isaac Chotiner: Have you enlisted to fight a valiant war against Spain yet?
David Runciman: Not yet, but we look forward to that one.
Where is Britain right now, nine or 10 months after the Brexit referendum?
It feels like the Phoney War is still ongoing. I know we often talk about Brexit and Trump together, but it feels completely different. We are nine months in, and it has all just been shadowboxing and symbolic. I don’t think anyone in this country has any idea yet what is at stake. None of it feels real. Even after invoking Article 50, the great symbolic moment, no one knows. Is this going to play out over two years? No one knows what the markers in the road are which will signal whether it is going well or going badly. No one knows when the economics will bite. Whereas with Trump, the day after he becomes president the issues are real and the opposition is real. You knew where the barriers are. We have none of that. It’s a Phoney War, and it will go on for a long time.
How do you appraise the job Theresa May has done in taking the first steps in pursuit of Brexit?
I think it has revealed quite a lot about her, even if she hasn’t revealed anything about it. It’s about small targets, delivering on promises that were made however much things might have changed since. So particularly for her it is about the promises she made about getting immigration under control well before she was prime minister. It’s about proving people wrong, and the people she really wants to prove wrong are David Cameron and George Osborne and the people she replaced. She has been revealed as a much more petty politician than people realize. She doesn’t have a vision. For her, a lot of politics is about revenge. She’s a score-settler, and she is going into these negotiations as that kind of politician, and I have to say that it doesn’t look good to me. It’s one thing to settle scores in the Conservative Party, but this is much bigger.
It’s interesting you say that she wanted to prove Cameron and Osborne, who pushed the Remain campaign, wrong, when she herself, however reluctantly, was a Remainer.
She has inherited this from a bunch of men she doesn’t think were up to the job, and she is going to prove them wrong by showing them how you do real politics.
Have you seen anything from the Europeans that suggests anything other than that they intend to make this painful for Britain?
No. I don’t know what it’s like inside the British government, but I think most British voters don’t realize or haven’t really thought about what this looks like from Europe or how angry Europeans are with us. The thing that seems to shock British voters is that when they are told Europeans are angry they think, “Oh, they are just angry because we had the courage to do what we wanted to do and they are trapped.” Whereas what they are really angry about is that they spent 30 years accommodating us and that the EU project was built to keep the British happy and it still wasn’t enough. People draw the analogy with a marriage all the time, but there is probably something to it. They have the anger of people who feel like they were making all the concessions and the other person left anyway.
The remaining countries also have an interest in making it painful.
Sure, they do. They also have a strong incentive to hold together a project which is really struggling. So that gives them a reason to play tough, but a lot of things in the next few years could go wrong in Europe. And if things do, just being tough on the Brits is not going to hold the project together. And if the project starts to fall apart, Europeans might look at the British and think they were sensible to get out. I think another thing that scares the Europeans is that Europe is about Germany and France, and Britain really helped with the balance. You take Britain out, and it looks unbalanced, and Germany is clearly the dominant partner.
These issues that go beyond English borders, involving Gibraltar and Scotland and Northern Ireland, are all worrying. Which are you most concerned about?
The thing that should be giving politicians pause is the Scottish question. There is no easy answer to it, and it is hard to see how anyone wins. The Scottish National Party is taking a huge gamble, and it is not at all clear they can win another referendum. But at the same time no Conservative prime minister, including Theresa May, wants to be the one who lets Scotland go. This game of high-stakes poker is going to come to a head quicker than the one with Britain and Europe, which could go on for years. But the SNP has made a commitment to a referendum sooner rather than later.
I ask this with trepidation, but where on earth is the Labour Party?
The big story about British politics, and this is a huge difference between Britain and the United States, is that there isn’t an opposition here because the only people who can really put pressure on a government that has a majority in the House of Commons is the opposition in the House of Commons, and that opposition has to be an alternative government so that if an election were to come, there has to be a chance that the sitting government will be replaced by someone else. The courts can’t really oppose the House of Commons. The House of Lords can’t really. The government has a power that American presidents can only dream of. If you take the opposition out it doesn’t work.
I don’t think a single person in the House of Commons, not one, including Jeremy Corbyn, believes that that Labour Party could form a government after a general election. So British politics at the moment doesn’t work. The Labour Party was in trouble, and it looked at Europe and what they saw, with the possible exception of Germany, was cratering everywhere. The big story in the Dutch elections was not about Geert Wilders. It was about the Labour Party in Holland collapsing. The voters just disappeared. It’s collapsed in places like Greece and France. Labour knows that the trends are working against them, and the only thing propping them up in the U.K. is the First Past the Post system that almost guarantees them a certain number of seats. But there isn’t an alternative to Labour as the party of opposition, so we are stuck with a party that can’t form a government or be replaced. British politics is frozen, and someone as incompetent as Corbyn—and Corbyn is spectacularly incompetent—can be frozen in his post. There is this zombie quality to British politics with these dead parties and dead leaders. There is nothing in the system to kill them. The British system just doesn’t function.
Since you wrote a book about democracy in crisis, how do you think America has handled the first couple months of its crisis? Has anything surprised you?
I have been slightly surprised not by Trump’s incompetence—because he strikes me as being just as incompetent as Corbyn—but by the incompetence of the people around him. Seen from the outside, it’s hard to tell if that dysfunction belongs to him, as if people are trying to calibrate their behavior to him.
Hiring idiots certainly belongs to him.
All of the people at the top level seem out of their depth. But the thing that really strikes me compared to this country is that you really do have a functioning democracy. We have a government that is more competent, but you have more opposition, and he has been blocked on things like health care, which would have been a catastrophe. It isn’t clear that the people who voted for him will give up on him.
Most of them never will.
The thing that most gave me pause about democracy in the past few months is what happened in India where Modi won a resounding success in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Because Modi is the closest thing out there to Trump. He’s more experienced and more competent, but he had been presiding over a country where there looked like there was rank incompetence, and it didn’t matter. And that more than anything else—and I know Indian democracy and American democracy have more things that separate them than connect them—gave me most pause about writing Trump off, weirdly. I know it sounds ridiculous, but these populist authoritarians—looking at Turkey, or India, or the Philippines—are far more popular than you would think, given their record. Incompetence will allow the Constitution and forces within the system to block Trump, but will it kill him at the ballot box? That’s the thing we still don’t know.