Notes From the Margins…

Cracking Up: Brexit and the Seven Dwarves

  • February 19, 2019
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Fans of Titanic and other disaster movies will know what to expect from the genre.   In the first part of the movie the characters go about their business oblivious to what is about to happen.  They might be in an office building, a ship, a submarine, an oil rig or any other structure that the audience knows is going to collapse or break up.

The characters usually don’t know the disaster is coming, but we do – that’s why we showed up.  And so we watch out for the inevitable warning signs: the busting rivets, the overheating temperature gauges, the ignored warnings, the buckling metal and all the other telltale signals that tell us things are about to blow, bigtime.

Politically speaking, the seven MPs who left Labour to join the ‘Independent Group’ yesterday belong to the same dramatic trope.  Individually or taken as a whole, these MPs have little political or intellectual clout.  They do not inspire and they are not likely to inspire.   Unlike the Gang of Four back in 1981 they include no big beasts and have no obvious constituency or coherent vision of what they propose to do.

We know that they detest Corbyn and the ‘hard left machine’ that they say has taken over the Labour Party.   We know that they are anti-Brexit.  We also know that they are repelled by a party that they argue is ‘institutionally antisemitic.’

Beyond that, things become hazy.  On Channel 4 News yesterday Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna were deeply unimpressive, waffling vaguely about the ‘values’ that they believe Labour has departed from – regardless of the fact that it would be difficult to find anyone in the Labour Party who would reject the values that Berger listed.


Berger also spoke darkly of a drift away from the centre to the fringes and extremes that she insisted her constituents rejected.  That remains to be seen, and since none of the seven are prepared to stand in bye-elections, it may be a while before anyone finds out.

Given this absence of clarity and purpose, it’s not surprising that yesterday’s event wasn’t the epoch-making launch that the seven may have hoped for.  It’s certainly an unusual – and given what goes on these days – a possibly dubious step to register a new political group in Panama, thereby making it impossible to know who its donors are.

For MPs who have made the ‘institutional racism’ of the Labour Party their cause celebre, it was genuinely jaw-dropping to hear Angela Smith refer to BAME people with a ‘funny tinge’ on tv.   You also have to wonder why Katie Hopkins – one of the most notorious racists in the country – would welcome a split like this.   Not to mention the Daily Mail and the entire Tory press.

But less obviously self-interested commentators have also hailed the ‘magnificent seven’ and praised their courage and bravery, and expressed hopes that this split may herald some return to ‘decency’.

Personally, I’m not impressed by any of them, either individually or collectively.  And I can’t help thinking that the real significance of yesterday’s events goes beyond the Labour Party itself to the ongoing political disaster movie that we have been living these last two and a half years.

The creaking and buckling has been going on for some time, but now a rivet has finally burst loose, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Though responsibility lies primarily with the Tories, the British political class has proven itself to be woefully incapable of finding answers to the most serious political crisis in the country’s history since World War 2.

It’s a crisis that has opened up multiple fractures in the political class that the old two-party system cannot absorb or deal with.   It runs across parties and within them.  It is not simply Leave versus Remain, but between left and right Leave and Remain, between May’s deal or no deal, between Corbyn’s customs union and a second referendum, between those who think that Brexit is a serious crisis and those who believe it’s just a distraction.

These divisions do not easily lend themselves to any obvious political alliances.   There may well be Tory MPs who are tempted by the notion of a ‘decent’ centre in order to escape the clutches of the ERG,  but what form will that centre take beyond Brexit or calls for a second vote?

The SDP occupied a very specific political ground and they failed – while weakening the Labour vote in the process.  The seven have no such position, and it’s not at all obvious what kind of position they even seek to occupy.

There are dozens of Labour MPs who loathe Corbyn and will have been thinking of leaving the party, but why would people like John Mann and Graham Stringer join a breakaway faction that calls for a second vote and opposes Brexit?  Why would left-leaning Remainers want to support a group that has previously favoured soft austerity and hard immigration controls, and which opposes freedom of movement?

It’s very difficult to see how any breakaway faction, or even a new ‘centrist’ party can accommodate these differences.   But one thing is certain: it won’t be the last split. Brexit has created pressures that Westminster cannot contain, and unlike your typical disaster movie – this one has been some time coming.  The old coalitions that held Labour and the Tories together in opposition to each other are breaking up.

Whatever happens over the next few months, we may be approaching our own version of Italy’s tangentopoli –  the antiquated, rigid and discredited political system that collapsed when its inadequacies were glaringly revealed in the early 1990s.

What happens next remains to be seen, but nothing happened yesterday to make me think that the Independent Group have the ability to take the country to a better place.

The great problem is that as things stand, nor can anyone else.


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  1. Nigel Baldwin

    19th Feb 2019 - 2:23 pm

    Allow me to make a modest correction, if I may. “Tangentopoli” was the name given to the system of governance in Italy, post war, that collapsed. It was not the term for the collapse of the system, based as it was on bribery and vested interests itself.

    Otherwise, you’ve got the right idea Matt. It’s gradually being seen that the existing system will have to change, and that the old one, based on rules that were “understood”, in which we were bidden to trust in those in authority above us with no questions asked, will have to go.

    • Matt

      19th Feb 2019 - 3:08 pm

      All corrections and comments welcomed Nigel. That is kind of what I was getting at, but I see that the phrasing was misleading and I’ve changed it accordingly. Tangentopoli – or ‘bribe/kickback city’ was darker and more corrupt than what we’re witnessing here, with the linkages to P2, fascists, strategy of tension, mafia etc, but I think the comparison still stands.

  2. Mark

    21st Feb 2019 - 9:06 pm


    BUT from little acorns mighty oaks will grow.

    The time has come for all good MPs to rise up and change the current political system.

    Who knows why do we have to stick to the current two party system. Would it not be better to have four or five mainstream parties in parliament?

    • Matt

      21st Feb 2019 - 9:18 pm

      I have no problem with that Mark. I just don’t happen to think much of the motives of this particular crowd. And the first past the post system tends to favour big parties, doesn’t it? Apart from that, bring it on.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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