Britain’s new anti-independence group

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Britain’s new anti-independence group

As I predicted on these pages in December, the main parties are splitting, but the splitters agree on nothing except opposition to Brexit, which makes hypocritical their claims to democraticness, centrism, and moderation.

Yesterday three MPs resigned from the Conservative Party to join the new self-titled “Independent Group,” which was announced the day before by seven defectors from the Labour Party, who belatedly prompted an eighth.

So now the House of Commons contains an “independent group” of 11. This is a significant number – as many as Liberal Democrat MPs, one more than Democratic Unionist MPs, more than the working majority that the ruling coalition (Conservative-Democratic Unionist) can scrape together over all others in the Commons.

The “independent group” doesn’t include the prior 8 independents, who count towards a total of 19 independent MPs (both grouped and ungrouped).

The prior 8 are even stranger bed-fellows, which is why the new 11 are grouping themselves apart. The prior 8 includes one MP who is now in jail, and has been expelled from the Labour Party, but refuses to give up her seat (Fiona Onasanya).

The rest of the prior 8 are mostly defectors from the Labour Party, but, unlike Onasanya, are not pro-Corbyn – most are Blairites. Probably the biggest beast is Frank Field, who claimed that his main reason for choosing independence in 2018 was the anti-Semitism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Luciana Berger gave the same reason on Tuesday, but she did not invite him into the “Independent Group.” One of her fellow splitters is a rival with Frank Field for leader of a post-Corbyn, neo-Blairite Labour Party (Chuka Umunna). They epitomize the difficulties these 19 would have in forming a caucus on anything but opposition to Brexit.

They certainly cannot form a party, as BBC and Channel4 commentators seem to hope. They have no common policies, except to defeat Brexit. Nor are the splitters offering “brave alternatives” to conventional politics, or the “first step” towards a restructuring of politics, or “direct action” against Brexit, as one academic prospected, putting his ideology before his objectivity.

Although the 19 can form a one-issue caucus (opposition to Brexit), they are too heterogenous to form a party, yet they are too conventional to offer alternatives to the current parties. Their position against any Brexit of any kind is out of touch with the majority of voters. Their claims to centrism and moderation are contradicted by their rough edges and left-wing biases. They correctly criticize the lowly state of politics in Britain, but they epitomize this descent, with venomous and vacuous statements.

The addition on Tuesday of three former Conservative Partisans just adds more left-wingers to a left-of-center collection – for them, the Labour Party is too left-wing but the Conservative Party is not left-wing enough, despite shifting left in recent years. The new independents are not centrists or moderates, as they claim, but anti-democratic left-wingers.

The latest three splitters were never conservative in ways with which most conservative members could identify. Heidi Allen justified her defection on the grounds that the Conservative Party “can’t open its eyes to the suffering endured by the most vulnerable in society.” Sarah Wollaston said that the government hasn’t “tackle[d] the burning injustices in our society.” Anna Soubry said she couldn’t stay in a party that has shifted “right wing.” These statements appeal to their new bedfellows, but are false accusations against a Conservative Party that has expanded Blairite commitments to international aid, the health service, and social care, raised taxes, reneged on reforming welfare, has a “social justice group”, confirmed Theresa May’s leadership for 12 months by confidence vote in December, and avoids talking about Margaret Thatcher.

In truth, the latest splitters were always incompatible with most members of the Conservative Party. All faced de-selection by their constituency parties, following Nick Boles – who has not yet resigned but was deselected by his constituency party two weeks ago. Since 2012, he has tried to stimulate a “national liberal” caucus within the Conservative Party. Since 2018, Bole and Soubry have been the leading advocates of bringing down the Conservative government unless it rules out leaving the EU without a deal.

Soubry has spent years spitting with outrage against most Conservative MPs for their supposed privileges and prejudices. Back in December, she characterized Brexiteers as “not real Conservatives” – a hypocritical claim, while she and most MPs have voted away more powers to the EU without popular consultation.

The Party leader that they accuse of shifting right-wards (Theresa May) is the leftist Conservative Party leader since Edward Heath. If May had ever been a Brexiteer, we would have left the EU by now – the current impasse is a result of her Machivellian procrastinations and deceptions to avoid a clean Brexit.

The new splitters share with Theresa May a cliched reliance on gender for legitimacy: Theresa May has frequently claimed that her critics are sexist, all women are victims of sexist society, and she’s the one to fix it. Yesterday, Anna Soubry highlighted the fact that all three of the Conservative splitters are women, as are half of the Labour splitters of the day before. Reaching for gender as a commonality is risky. They undermine the male splitters, and they draw attention to how little the splitters have in common.

Indeed, the splitters are ultimately vacuous. They have made careers talking about what they are against, without specifying what they are for. Anna Soubry is the clearest example: she seems to be constantly angry, with a nasty habit of jabbing her finger and spitting towards her peers, without specifying any proposals or alternatives, except to shift left-wards, defeat Brexit, and hold a “people’s vote.”

Indeed, the splitters’ only unity is against a nebulous right-wing, against Brexit, and for a second referendum to overturn the popular vote for Brexit.

Ironically, the only ground they share is the ground that makes them hypocrites.

The splitters talk of centrism and moderation, but their rhetoric about Brexit is toxic – they reduce or ignore opposition arguments, they over-reach, they invent bogeymen and strawmen, they opt out, and they prefer their own company.

The splitters claim to be superior democrats, but they want to overturn the popular vote for Brexit of 2016 with another referendum that they hypocritically call a “people’s vote.”

They also refuse to acknowledge the Brexiteers’ complaints about the EU’s democratic deficit.

They also refuse to call by-elections in their own constituencies, even though they have abandoned the manifestos on which they were elected. Bear in mind that Douglas Carswell defected from the Conservative Party in 2014 to UKIP – partly on realization that more of his constituents expressed support for UKIP than the Conservative Party, then he immediately resigned as MP too, stood in the by-election, and increased his majority. Yet Carswell is one of those Brexiteers that the splitters accuse of ruining democracy. Carswell, by the way, did not stand for re-election in 2017.

The splitters pretend to know something that the majority don’t. They are quick to accuse Brexiteers of being misled or ignorant, but they invent strawmen, such as mythical Brexiteers that want to make us poorer and ruin our children’s future. They ignore the Brexiteers’ real arguments.

They also invent a bogeyman they call the “right wing,” but for them any Brexiteer is right-wing. Here, they align with the loony lefties of Corbyn’s Labour Party and its backers from “Momentum”, who call Brexit a “right-wing project” – even though most people who voted for Brexit in 2016 were otherwise voters for left-wing parties or swing voters.

Soubry’s particular bogeyman is the European Research Group, which she claims has taken over the Conservative Party and government. In fact, it is a backbench group, whose reports and white papers Theresa May has always refused to receive.

The general accusation that Brexiteers “have won” (as Soubry said yesterday) belies the fact that most MPs, and most of Theresa May’s cabinet, are Remainers – more so today than before the resignations in 2018 over May’s proposals for a partial Brexit. Meanwhile, the splitters deny that Brexiteers won the referendum.

The splitters had already split from reality before they split from their parties. Party politics will be more democratic without them.

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    Bruce Oliver Newsome
    Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of San Diego
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