Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 58, February 2017 - Noises off

One of the perennial dangers of studying politics in a single political system is the risk of parochialism. It is easy to relegate events outside the system to ‘noises off’ abroad. Yet it is patently the case that the international settings of national political systems are profound influences on what happens ‘domestically’. Indeed, the experience of the June 2016 referendum and the ensuing ‘Brexit’ experience shows us that our conventional division between the ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’, though a handy division of labour, is actually an unreal one.

It happens, however, that the ‘noises off’ in recent months have become increasingly loud, and increasingly fraught with implications for the future of government in the United Kingdom. Three developments are particularly important: the impact of the migrant and refugee crisis for the European Union; the (linked) phenomenon of the rise of radical right wing parties in many states of the Union; and the Trump phenomenon in the United States.

The migrant and refugee crisis has many causes, ranging from worldwide military conflict to the pressures of global poverty. In the case of the European Union, however, it has had three destabilising effects. It has destroyed the key mechanism by which the EU sought to regulate migrant flows: the distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’. It has placed enormous strains on one of the key measures designed to integrate the societies and labour markets of large parts of the EU, the Schengen Agreement on passportless travel (a measure to which from the beginning the United Kingdom sought and received a ‘derogation’). And across the Union the phenomenon of mass inward migration has intensified suspicion of, and hostility to, migrants.

Thus the migrant and refugee crisis is also connected to the rise of right wing anti-migrant parties across the Union: in Austria the Freedom Party, which in December 2016 almost won the election for the Presidency; in Greece Golden Dawn; in the Netherlands the Freedom Party; in France, the Front National. Of all these the French case may be the most significant, for two reasons. First, the collapse of support for the ruling Socialist Party almost certainly means that the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, will win through to the second round of the contest for the French Presidency in the spring of 2017. Even if she does not win the final contest – the most likely presently foreseeable outcome – her electoral appeal is already redrawing the electoral map of French politics. And that connects to the second significant meaning of the French case. Support for the Front National has two striking features: it draws heavily on working class voters who in previous decades would have voted Socialist and even Communist; and it draws heavily on the young. Across much of Europe hostility to migrants and to the cosmopolitanism represented by the EU is heavily concentrated on older voters – a clear feature of the UK referendum on Brexit. But the Front National has also been able to create a popularly appealing wider critique of the EU, especially of its economic policies, and especially of the workings of the single currency, the Euro. Young support for the Front becomes easily explicable when we realise that the French youth unemployment rate is 25 per cent. In Britain it is half that, and in Germany half that again (Statista 2016). The Front is in favour of Frexit – French exit not only from the Euro but maybe even from the EU itself. The Euro has been a disaster for the labour market policies of whole swathes of the Union. Within Britain, Brexit is naturally discussed in terms of the problems it creates for the United Kingdom; but it is also a sign of powerful disruptive forces that are threatening the very existence of the Union itself.

If the example of France alerts us to the uncertain future of the European order of things, the victory of Donald Trump in the American Presidential election alerts us to even more fundamental changes in the international order. The most convincing account of his international significance actually predates by some years the emergence of President Trump. In The World America Made, published in 2013, the historian Robert Kagan traced the advance and then the retreat of the United States as the dominant manager of the international order (Kagan 2013 and Kagan 2016). If President Trump means what he says, and if he has the capacity to implement what he wishes, European states like the United Kingdom will be left much more to their own devices – and their own fates – than was the case for nearly seventy years after the end of World War Two.


  • Statista (2016). ‘Youth unemployment rate in Europe (EU member states) as of October 2016 (seasonally adjusted)’ - at https://www.statista.com/statistics/266228/youth-unemployment-rate-in-eu-countries/ - accessed 22 December 2016.
  • Kagan, R. (2013) The World America Made. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Kagan, R. (2016) ‘Trump marks the end of America as world’s ‘indispensable nation’ Financial Times, 19 November.