London--Britain’s political system remained in turmoil Monday, virtually leaderless and with the two major parties divided internally. But the meltdown that has taken place in the days after voters decided to break the country’s ties with Europe is more than a British problem, reflecting an erosion in public confidence that afflicts democracies around the world.
Last Thursday’s Brexit vote cast a bright light on the degree to which the effects of globalization and the impact of immigration, along with decades of overpromises and under-delivery by political leaders, have undermined the ability of those officials to lead. This collapse of confidence has created what amounts to a crisis in governing for which there seems no easy or quick answer.
The debris here is clear. The Brexit vote claimed Prime Minister David Cameron as its first victim. Having called the referendum and led the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, he announced his intention to resign the morning after the vote. The results also now threaten the standing of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who faces a likely leadership election after seeing more than two dozen members of his leadership team resign in the past two days.
Alastair Darling, a former chancellor of the exchequer, outlined the extent of the crisis here during an interview with the BBC’s “Today” program on Monday. “There is no government. There is no opposition. The people who got us into this mess--they’ve gone to ground,” he said “How has the United Kingdom come to this position? We have taken this decision and have no plan for the future.”
The seeds of what has brought Britain to this moment exist elsewhere, which makes this country’s problems the concern of leaders elsewhere. In Belgium and Brazil, democracies have faced crises of legitimacy; in Spain and France, elected leaders have been hobbled by their own unpopularity; even in Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces no threat from the opposition, his government has demonstrated a consistent inability to deliver prosperity.
Anthony King, a professor of politics at the University of Essex, said the underlying factor is that many people no longer believe that, however imperfect things are economically, they will keep getting better.
In the face of that change in public attitudes, he said, much of the political class “is behaving the way it used to behave, the old arguments, the old fights, the adversarialism.” That has created what he called “the palpable disconnection” between political leaders and ordinary people. “That is true across much of the democratic world,” he added. “How do you put that right?”
The problem is especially acute here at the moment and threatens to grow worse in the near term. A longtime analyst of politics here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his position, said: “If you thought your [American] politics were a mess, we can outdo you any time. I’ve never known it in any way, shape or form as bad as this.”