Britain lost faith in its politicians – and then it voted for Brexit
What do Bill Clinton, the Beano, and moat cleaning have in common? Answer: they all contributed to Brexit.
We are about to reach the tenth anniversary of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the fifteenth anniversary of the launch of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (which I co-founded in 2004), and in 30 days’ time we should be leaving the European Union.
I’ve been reflecting on the links between these events, and one common theme is how they relate to the declining trust in politicians.
There are three complaints about politicians which anyone canvassing will have heard repeatedly on the doorstep in recent years: “they’re all the same”, “I’m sick of the lies”, and (regarding specific projects) “it’s a waste of money”.
These sentiments have fuelled the anti-establishment movement, which was a critical element of the Brexit vote in 2016.
Crucially, they can also be heard on doorsteps across the EU, which is why member states are bracing themselves for a difficult set of European elections in May.
The sentiment that politicians are “all the same” cannot be written off as a misconstrued insult against the political class.
While it is true that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s leader in 2015 has highlighted significant policy distinctions between the parties, before then, many members of the public struggled to see the difference between Tony Blair and David Cameron, or Cameron and Ed Miliband.
This was not the case in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were poles apart. But the election of Blair as leader of the Labour party, bringing with him the Third Way approach borrowed from President Clinton of “triangulating” between the left and right, set the scene for broad policy conformity over the next two decades.
This political mirroring extended to the EU debate, where all the parties went along with an integrationist agenda. Conservative MPs might question proposals for further integration, but as soon as they were enacted through an EU treaty, they dropped their opposition.
This opened a political space for the UK Independence Party, which became a magnet for people dissatisfied with the political elite and was a crucial factor in Cameron’s decision to call the referendum. Before Ukip, the main parties really did seem “all the same”.
Similarly, when voters said that they were “sick of the lies”, this was often dismissed by politicians and commentators as mere mud-slinging. But – again – there was a solid basis for this guttural cry.
In Blair’s first term, his policies were consistent with his economic rhetoric, as he matched Ken Clarke’s moderate spending plans.
However, after the 2001 General Election, the language of prudence stayed, but government spending let rip. This opened the space for the launch of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, with its slogan “politicians talk, we pay”.
When it came to the EU, the “lies” and “broken promises” were even more stark.
The European Constitution was rejected by European voters in 2005, thanks to referendums in France and the Netherlands. But it reemerged – unchanged but rebranded – as the Lisbon Treaty in 2007
And back in 2000, voters were told that the Charter of Fundamental Rights would have no more legal standing than “a copy of the Beano”. Yet this text became a key document for the expansionist European Court of Justice.
Finally, the notion of “government waste” was also a crucial contributor to the declining trust in politicians.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, wasteful spending suddenly came under the spotlight, as the public were woken up to how much it had spiralled out of control.
This was further reinforced by the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, which revealed our politicians using their parliamentary expenses for everything from purchasing duck houses to cleaning out moats on country estates.
The scandal exposed the profligacy which had been allowed to occur under Gordon Brown’s tenure.
And the theme of wasteful spending also applied to the EU debate, highlighted not only by countless examples of EU largess, but also by the clear trade-off between taxpayer money spent on our EU membership rather than on domestic priorities, such as the NHS.
Just as the £250m cost of changing Britain’s voting system was a powerful message in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum, the figure of £350m a week sent to the EU proved to be equally decisive – and controversial – in 2016.
This is how Bill Clinton (triangulation), the Beano (“lies”) and moats (wasteful spending) all contributed to Britain voting to leave the EU.
They are not a complete explanation for Brexit, but Britain’s decision to leave the EU cannot be considered in isolation to the wider political climate.
This anti-establishment weather front now hovers over the EU, as we shall see in May. And if Brexit is postponed significantly, we shall see trust in politicians plunge to even lower depths in the UK.
What the last 15 years have shown us is that objections raised on the doorstep cannot be ignored forever.