A bomb thrown into the political system. Interview with political and investigative journalist Thomas Kelly

Marcin Chruściel: My first question is very general. How do you find the influence of Brexit on the political scene in Britain? What kind of influence it has already had and what effect it may have in the foreseeable future?


Tom Kelly: Massive. It seems almost everything is a prism of Brexit. Partly not because of Brexit itself, but because the EU law has affected so many policies in the recent 47 years. There are still many questions marks, what form Brexit will finally take. In the short term, it has destabilised the political situation. Because it cut across party lines, Brexit has weakened traditional political cleavages. The Labour Party was torn in two directions: most party members were against Brexit and Labour’s traditional voters in huge numbers were in favour. In the Conservatives, there was a big division which led to a schism between the Brexiteers and non Brexiteers. In this case, Brexit has moved political boundaries. It was like a bomb thrown into the political system and now we are seeing where it has landed.

Has Brexit changed the way of making policy and the language of politics in Britain?


Because it was such a big issue, dominating almost everything, the political narrative was either very simple: “We want to get it done!” or it was trying to avoid picking sides, as Labour did. They were trying to appeal to both sides simultaneously. In this case they could not really win, because it was not confrontational.


Do you think that the British people has become more aware of and interested in domestic politics as a result of the Brexit process?


No, I think some people are really into it, but we have had so much politics that lots of people are just so bored of Brexit and they had enough. They just wanted to get it done and go away, wherever. It has been so much politics everywhere and endlessly: “This is the most important vote in the Commons for the Article 50”, and in the next week there was another “most important vote”. I think a lot of people got sick of it. Especially when it was all the time around one issue. In terms of turnout in the recent elections (67.3% in December 2019 and 68.8% in June 2017), it was pretty average. So the Brexit issue has neither mobilised people to vote or turned people against voting.


Were other domestic issues neglected in the political agenda because of Brexit?


They were certainly lowered down. A wide array of issues, such as the economy, migration, health service, were rather tied to Brexit, but not forgotten. Some wanted Brexit because they thought it will be better for the economy and other were against it, believing it would be bad for the economy. So other issues were included in the political agenda, but Brexit was the big thing dominating them. The economic debate was very intense before the Brexit vote in 2016 – then it was a big deal. Now, it seems that we have come out of it and the economy may have declined a little bit, but not nosedived. And the basic question remains: “What kind of deal we will get after the transition period?”. The main problem is still uncertainty and this is why Boris Johnson was campaigning “Let’s get it done”. Because even people who were against Brexit understand well that it can still be worse, if we roll on. The recent decline in GDP was mainly because of this uncertainty, not because of leaving per se.


And what about the policies of redistribution? Has there been a significant change in the main parties’ approach towards social policies during the Brexit process?


This aspect has really came out in the last election. Because Brexit cut across party lines, a lot of seats that would never have voted for the Conservatives, voted for them for first time. So suddenly there were voices from the North of England and the Midlands that were listened to. Labour had to try to win them back and the Conservatives had to fight to keep them in order to deliver the Brexit promise. They have included a number of social policies in their programme. Partly because Labour wanted to have huge amounts of public spending, so the Conservatives had to propose some to balance it. But also because for many years the government was implementing the policies of austerity to cut down on debt.


Would you compare Brexit and its political consequences to such revolutionary events in the history of Britain as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the union between England and Scotland in 1707? Especially in terms of the unity of the country.


Some have made that claim. In modern times, since II World War, it has been the biggest single political thing that happened. We have obviously joined the European Community in 1973 and there were things like the Suez Crisis in 1956, but this is not similar to removing ourselves from a big grouping we were part of. And no one underestimates the potential consequences Brexit may have to the unity of the United Kingdom, with the Scottish National Party already saying they will call for a second independence referendum.


Was the 2016 referendum a turning point in the use of referenda in the UK? How is this political toll considered now?


Well, it is almost universal. People who wanted Brexit consider referendum as a good thing and those who were against it regard the use of referendum as a dangerous tool. But I think no one is keen to have that kind of referendum again soon. It was so divisive that it did split the country in a way. On the other hand, you could not leave the EU without having a vote, because it is such a big thing. So it was fair to organise it, in my opinion. Obviously part of the promise, if you voted for Brexit, was that there are several different ways of having it; that you are not voting for something clearly defined. If you were voting for staying, then you knew what it meant. So I think there could have been room for having a first vote and then a second vote, when you know what the deal is. The so-called “final say”. But for this to have happened, it would have needed to have been agreed at the beginning. You cannot say: “This is a one off vote and that’s that” and then suddenly say there should be a second referendum.


Do you think that Brexit has revealed the limits of the parliamentary democracy in the UK?


The problem was much of parliament opposed the result of the referendum. And the MPs could not work out a way to get their act together. What we ended up was a mess. Only the recent elections has changed that in a way. But for few months it felt like absolute chaos and there was no way how to get out. Of course, when the election was called we didn’t know how it is going to end up. It could have ended up in the same situation. Because now there is a huge Conservative majority, that makes it more straightforward. The main problem before was that Theresa May had such a small majority in the parliament, and after the snap election in 2017 no absolute majority (they were relying on the Democratic Unionist Party). So it was extremely hard to get through it. Now, with a landslide majority of 80 seats, even if a few MPs rebel against Boris Johnson, he still would have enough, almost certainly to pass things.


You have mentioned about the use of populism in the debate over Brexit. Do you think that Brexit has created some additional space for populism in the UK?


I think people against Brexit were just accusing others of using populism. We have to remember that this campaign was an unusual situation, because it was not a normal party politics. But you have to be popular in order to win any political campaign. Both sides have always used populism, using human-focused stories or policies to make their case. Because that is how you get people vote. And those issues matter to people. And obviously there has been much more politics in our daily life since the referendum campaign. We just see more of it, so it feels like there is more political populism.


We are trying to find out how the Brexit process has influenced the balance of power in the political system. You are a journalist, so what do you think about the influence of media in this system. Has Brexit changed something in this respect?


I am of the view that people overestimate the media’s role in British politics. Because most people who buy newspapers they either believe in it anyway and support the paper’s political views, so they buy “the Guardian” to the left and “the Daily Mail” to the right, or do it regardless of their political alignment. I am not saying that the media has no influence, but I don’t think that in the case of Brexit it was somehow bigger.


Don’t you think that the image of the European Union before and during the 2016 referendum was rather negative?


Some papers were whole against it and they were obviously highlighting flaws of the EU. But there is plenty of papers that are very pro-EU. So I think there were two sides. And obviously when you have a referendum, one side loses and the other side wins. The side that loses blame it all on the other. So I think the view of media bias against the EU is rather simplistic.


And how about the use of social media in this campaign? You could hear about the engagement of Cambridge Analytica in targeting voters for the Leave.EU campaign and the UKIP party. Do you think their role is also overestimated?


It is really hard to know, because you can see what is in the newspapers, but in terms of social media you don’t know what is in someone else’s feed. So that is much harder thing to tell. And because it is such a new tool, it is very hard to judge. Brexit has certainly pushed the politicians to use social media more effectively. But I think we are too early on that to measure its real impact.


Do you think that Brexit will change the focus of public debate in Britain more into global issues and foreign policy?


The idea of Brexit proponents has been that it offers a huge number of potential trade deals, and that there is a case for it. So suddenly people became more interested in these things, even though some of them didn’t even know about the existence of things like customs union before. So I think Brexit has alerted people to the importance of these issues. It has brought them to the surface of public debate. You are more aware now when the Foreign Secretary goes to the South East Asia or other regions in the world to discuss new economic opportunities.  


What impact Brexit may have on the UK’s international standing? Do you think that the vision of “Global Britain”, which assumes the strengthening of the country’s global role after Brexit, sets a realistic goal?


I think it does, because Britain still has impact internationally. It is a financial and commercial centre and it is well placed geographically. It has very good links with the outside world. Part of the argument for Brexit was to expand that and go beyond forced regulations of the EU, regarding migration or trade deals. Obviously, the argument on the other side was that we are much more powerful as a part of big trading block which is the European Single Market. Having gone Brexit, we have to play on the former, because that is who we are and push that to the maximum. I think that is the philosophy of Boris Johnson now.