Stormy weather in disunited kingdom9 min read . Updated: 16 Dec 2019, 11:37 AM IST
- UK will now leave the EU for sure and the country may become more diminished. The future looks grim
- UK will leave the EU, that seems certain, and the country will remain deeply divided, between towns and cities, between the old and the young, between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and ‘everywhere
LONDON : The British electoral map has been redrawn, and the winner is Boris, not necessarily the Tories. The Conservatives have won more seats than at any time since Margaret Thatcher, and Labour has won the fewest seats in parliament since 1935: a performance seen as worse than the 1983 defeat under Michael Foot, when the party’s manifesto was described as ‘the longest suicide note in history.’
But the Conservatives who have won bear little resemblance to the stalwarts of the past, such as Winston Churchill or Thatcher, just as Labour today has little in common wit h electorally successful leaders such as Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson, or more spectacularly, Tony Blair. The story of this election is that neither party is what it claims to represent.
The decline of Corbyn
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was projected as a messiah, but Corbyn simply could not assure British voters that he was proud to be British. As a backbench politician, he eloquently lent support to many unpopular causes, including leftist revolutions around the world, but he was also on the right side of history in opposing the apartheid in South Africa. But once he became party leader, he could not change himself—some would say he would not change himself out of conviction—to appeal to a wider body of voters.
The charge Corbyn could not erase was of anti-semitism. Labour Party has faced credible allegations that it is hostile to Jews, and Corbyn did little to allay concerns. Ruth Smeeth, the defeated candidate from Stoke on Trent North, blamed Corbyn for his appalling failure to reassure nervous voters, as she summed up Labour as ‘the nasty party,’ an epithet once reserved for Thatcher’s Conservatives. The difference though is that nasty or not, those Tories (and today’s Tories) won in spite of their apparent nastiness, Labour it seems, lost because of its perceived nastiness.
No doubt there is voter hypocrisy here; if Labour has a problem with the Jewish community, Conservatives have a bigger problem over its in-built Islamophobia. Conservative candidates have been known to make homophobic comments and have used racist slurs, starting with Boris Johnson himself, who has called burkha-clad Muslim women ‘letterboxes,’ gay men ‘tank-topped bumboys,’ and Commonwealth citizens greeting the queen ‘flag-waving picaninnies.’
And yet, slightly more than two out of five British voters, who allegedly consider decency, integrity and fair play the hallmarks of the nation, voted Tories.
The ghosts of the empire
Conservatives were clever in fighting the election as much on emotional issues and the cultural front as on economic grounds. Having been in power for nearly a decade, they came with considerable baggage, including heartless austerity which starved the national health service of funding, cut back social benefits to those who needed it most, and reduced the number of police on the streets. It was an election for Labour to win, but Conservatives smartly focused their campaign on ‘taking back control’ from Brussels. That was something visceral and emotional, a desire to wrest back control for a more familiar, older way of life. The existential doubts Britain has had, which has convinced a small majority of its citizens that leaving the EU is a good idea, are real; they were best described by former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who put it astutely: Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role. Indeed, both major parties fought the campaign evoking the past: the Tories talked of a pre-1973 UK, before it had joined the European Economic Community, as the EU was then known, as though it was paradise. Bliss it would be to return to that dawn, the Narnia where Brussels diktats and Strasbourg rulings did not apply.
But Labour under Corbyn too wanted to return to the 1970s— when unions were strong and powerful, the state ran everything from airlines to railways to post and telegraph, and industries hummed in the north (and polluted the environment), and Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter rising up the Conservative leadership ladder. More pragmatic Labour politicians were horrified by what that would do, but they were effectively silenced or marginalized.
The fact is, urban, upwardly-mobile, meritocratic professionals are more likely to vote Labour; rural, under-educated, lifetime working class families have voted Conservative. The crumbling of the so-called Red Wall of seats in former working class neighbourhoods in the deindustrialized north and old mining towns, has been stunning. Seat after seat went to Tories for the first time since 1935, since 1950, for the first time ever, and so on.
The Tories’ outstanding triumph is because of Johnson’s pugnacious campaigning. He convinced the party that he alone could lead it to victory, and the party was willing to allow itself to be recast as a nationalistic entity competing with even more nationalistic forces like the Brexit Party. And Johnson calculated that voters were exhausted after the three-year soap opera of Brexit, and would overlook Tory propaganda, even claims that were lies.
Election of contradictions
Labour, on the other hand, tried to cast the poll as a truly general election, and not as a vote about Brexit. This was partly because Corbyn himself dislikes the EU and many Labour voters voted to leave the EU. And so the Labour manifesto focused on the conditions of schools and railways, and the need to invest more in the national health service. Conservatives parroted in response—Get Brexit Done. That explains why Tories swept the towns and countryside which had voted to leave the EU, particularly in the Midlands and the North of England, remarkably winning seats in constituencies that had voted Labour for generations—like Bassetlaw, Redcar, Workington, Blyth Valley, even Sedgefield (which was Blair’s constituency). The curious aspect is that while many areas of these constituencies look devastated and visibly poor, that devastation was in large part the result of transformative policies of Thatcher—and yet, those multigenerational Labour voters believed that leaving the EU would somehow improve their lives, and reposed their faith in the standard-bearer of that rebellion—Boris Johnson.
That sounds paradoxical. But unless the more cosmopolitan politicians, voters, and analysts seriously attempt to understand why that has happened, the so-called progressive agenda is doomed.
For a long time, Conservative and other right-leaning politicians have claimed that immigration into the UK is uncontrolled and it is a problem. Facts don’t matter. Facts show that immigrants are a net gain (as they are in virtually every country). The fact that immigrants in Britain contribute more to the economy (by creating jobs and paying taxes) than taking from it (such as welfare and benefits) is glossed over or not believed.
And so the parts of the UK that are more white and have less interaction with immigrants are the parts that have voted to leave Europe and for the Tories; the cities, with higher education and more multi-ethnic demography, had voted to remain in the EU and many have continued to vote Labour.
A look at results of the past five elections shows that the biggest swings from Labour to Conservatives have occurred in areas where more than half the voters voted to leave the EU. It was a symptom, not a cause—it showed how Labour had begun to lose support of its base much before the Brexit vote. As populations in towns grew older, and as younger people moved for work to cities, it hollowed the support that Labour could take for granted in its old heartlands. This city-vs-country divide is not new; it has been visible for some years. The Brexit vote revealed these features dramatically, and the 2019 election confirms that trend. David Goodhart, former editor of Prospect magazine, had written a book in 2017, called The Road To Somewhere, and he was onto the trend—of how British people felt threatened by globalization— immigrants coming in, foreign capital owning businesses, and jobs going out, to Europe, to China, even beyond—and they yearned for certainties, wanting to belong somewhere.
But Britain also had an emerging population of those who felt they could belong ‘anywhere’—the globalized cosmopolitan class—this is the section of the population at ease in Marseilles and Manchester, in Lisbon or Liverpool, in Kolkata or Kensington, or in Paris or Putney—but they’d feel lost in those formerly thriving mining and factory towns within the UK, left behind by globalization.
In 2016, at the Conservative Party conference, then prime minister Theresa May famously said, “If you believe you are citizen of the world, you are a citizen of Nowhere." What was seen as expansive and open, was being shown as, and seen as, rootless, without moorings.
Those who wish to understand modern Britain would do well to pay attention on those voters who feel marginalized and disenfranchised, rather than viewing them with contempt, calling them bigoted. Listening to them does not mean agreeing with them. But understanding them and shaping a new agenda that alleviates their fears and make them believe in a fairer, outward-looking society. In a sense, this is a challenge not only for progressive forces in the UK, but all around the world, including India.
The physical map
It is not just the electoral map of the United Kingdom that is now redrawn; the physical map might change too. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 seats out of 59, regaining more than a dozen seats they had lost in 2017. The SNP had sought a referendum for independence which it lost 55-45 in 2014, and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has already announced that she will want a second referendum soon.
Johnson has already turned down her request, but Sturgeon’s case is strong. Just as England has overwhelmingly voted for Conservatives and most constituencies that voted to leave the EU are in England, Scots have overwhelmingly voted for SNP, and most Scots want to remain in the EU. Regardless of the merit of the Scottish independence case (or its viability as an independent nation), the Scots have a strong case for a new referendum.
Likewise, Northern Ireland: the unionist parties did slightly worse than the nationalist parties this time. (In Northern Ireland, unionist parties are those that want Northern Ireland to be part of the UK; the nationalists are those who believe Northern Ireland should join the Irish Republic, creating a united Ireland). The so-called Irish backstop, which would have kept the Irish border between the UK and Ireland open, was the main stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations.
Taking back control means having a border between the UK and Ireland; if not on land then in the Irish Sea. And creating such a border would undermine the borderless promise (and reality) of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, threatening the 20 years of relative peace and stability in Northern Ireland. In such a case, an eventually united Ireland cannot be ruled out. That would leave “one nation" conservatives running a rump country of two nations, England and Wales. For now, it is fair to call the UK the Disunited Kingdom.
UK will now leave the EU, that seems certain, and the country will remain deeply divided, between towns and cities, between the old and the young, between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and ‘everywhere,’ between the cosmopolitan and the parochial. It may become a more diminished country, even smaller than ‘the small island,’ as Bill Bryson described it, no longer the charmed ‘sceptred isle’ as William Shakespeare called it.
The empire is gone, and it wants to be part of another empire—the EU — no longer. It will have to find a new role in a global economy dominated by the United States, Europe, and China. Can it become a low tax haven seeking the kind of terms of trade that an East India Company could enforce? That’s the nostalgists’ dream. The reality is often cold, grim, grey, and wet—like the English sky during much of the year.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.