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‘Tuned In, But Turned Off:’ Brexit Chaos Pushes Brits Towards a New Kind of Politics

Brexit Deadline Week Begins In LondonBrexit Deadline Week Begins In London
The silver lining is that Brits are more inclined to vote. David Cliff—NurPhoto via Getty Images

Do you have faith in the British sense of justice and fair play? Then you might want to think again.

Thanks to a combination of Brexit, austerity, inequality, and rising crime, the British public is so dissatisfied with the current political system that more than half (54%) of the population now wants “a strong leader who’s willing to break the rules,” says the Audit of Political Engagement from the Hansard Society in a report on Monday.

Three-quarters of respondents feel the main political parties no longer “serve the best interests of the country;” another nearly three-quarters say the system of governing needs “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of improvement. If you’ve been watching the Brexit chaos unfold, you might respond to that last point with a resounding: no kidding.

Overall, the survey—of some 1,200 people in December 2018—found that the public opinion of the U.K.’s system of governing is now at its lowest point in 15 years, worse even than in the aftermath of a 2009 scandal involved lawmakers’ expenses, when investigations revealed several members of Parliament had used public money to pay for moats and floating duck houses, among other over-the-top perks.

Well over half are also downbeat about the state of Britain—56% think Britain is “in decline,” 63% “think Britain’s system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful,” while 74% have more faith in the military than they do in politicians (34%) or the government (33%).

Yet the real problem is not that Brits want a strong leader: it’s that they’ve become so disillusioned with the party squabbling, lack of leadership and failure to get to grips with the tough challenges facing the U.K., that a large percentage now wants to rip up the system and start again, says Dr. Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society.

“It is the willingness to break rules apart, which is concerning, because, for the U.K. as a country, fidelity to the rule of law, playing by the rules, fairness and fair play are all part of the national character and part of the democratic character,” says Fox.

The dissatisfaction also cuts across gender, social class and education to the point that Fox suggests there’s now a “universal picture” of dissatisfaction, regardless of whether people voted Remain or Leave at the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“It’s not a simple thing of saying this is about the frustration of Leavers spilling over and that there’s some kind of authoritarian bent of the disaffected,” says Fox. “It is a broader frustration with the system we’ve got and the political parties and the way they are conducting politics.”

Viewed in a wider European context, however, the results are not unusual. In France, Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Rally party—previously known as the National Front—polled just 1.5% behind President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche in an Ifop-Fiducial poll published on April 3.

Ifop also currently estimates Macron’s approval rating at just 29%.

Across the Alps, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini hosted a summit in Milan on Monday to discuss the creation of a populist alliance ahead of May’s EU parliamentary elections, under the banner “To the Europe of Common Sense!”

The Northern League leader hopes to unite right-wing populists such as Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, and Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache into a coherent political voice.

The question is whether the U.K. could finally be tempted to fully follow the same populist path after hundreds of years of successfully avoiding—and fighting against—it.

“Despite the pessimism, despite the dissatisfaction, and despite the frustration, there are some beacons of light,” says Fox, pointing to the fact that indicators such as ‘interest’ and ‘knowledge’ in politics are stable—with the figure for “certainty to vote” at its highest ever level.

“People are tuned in, but they are turned off,” she continues.

“There’s nothing in our system that says we are automatically immune to some of the pressures that other countries are facing with that kind of populist politics,” she says. “So, we have got to make sure we don’t rest on our laurels.”