Musings on the Future of British Politics (1)

6 Jun

Musings on the Future of British Politics

As requested … normal commenting rules apply.

Part One – How Did We Get Into This Mess Anyway?

I suck at drawing diagrams, but I’ll do my best.  This is an obviously simplistic view of the British electorate – it ignores the other parties and independent voters completely – but it will do for the moment.  Note that Q1 and Q2 are solidly Tory, Q3 and Q4 are Labour.

It looks as if the electorate is 50/50,right?

Now, we add the BREXIT voters to the diagram.

You’ll notice that Q1 is Tory Europhile, Q2 is Tory Euroskeptic, Q3 is Labour Europhile and Q4 is Labour Euroskeptic.  The electorate appears to be divided evenly amongst the four factions.  Right?

What this means is that the BREXIT vote cut across party lines.  There were Labour voters who loathed David Cameron, but voted for BREXIT; there were Tory voters who thought highly of Cameron, but voted against BREXIT.  Both political parties, therefore, were caught in a bind.  If the leadership stood strongly for Leave, they’d lose Remain voters (and vice versa).  Indeed, the reason we got the election in the first place was that David Cameron needed to placate the Tory Euroskeptics (who would have made him pay a price for not holding the referendum).  His calculation was that Remain would win and the Tory Euroskeptics would shut up for a while.  This would have been dangerously optimistic – the SNP has yet to shut up about Scottish Independence – even if Remain had won the vote.

It lost.

This presented the political establishment with a serious problem, because the political divide I described above was still in effect.  Large numbers of both politicians and voters were firmly convinced that leaving the EU would be a mistake.  They argued that the voters had been misinformed or misled and therefore it would be better to quietly put the vote to one side.  Their arguments effectively boiled down to “[we] recognize the electorate has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-ass decision, [we’ve] elected to ignore it.”  They were basically trapped between two fires.  There was no decision they could make that would please everyone.  Worse, because it was unsure if the results would ever be implemented, and there was a chance the result might simply be ignored, the EU had no reason to take the outcome seriously.  Instead of recognising that Britain was going to leave and coming to terms that would minimise the pain on both sides, Brussels chose to play hardball. 

The combination not only alienated the voters from the political classes – both Leave and Remain voters – it confirmed the worst fears and preconceptions about both London and Brussels.  There was simply no way Prime Minister May could make a decision, let alone a deal, without getting stabbed in the back by one side or the other.  Her political weakness emboldened her enemies, her inability to choose a side and stick to it saved Labour from having to make a stand of its own.

Enter Boris Johnston.  Johnston understood a fundamental truth that far too many modern-day politicians forget.  People want clear and decisive leadership.  Johnston became PM and called an election, pledging that he was solidly for Leave.  Labour should, perhaps, have stood for Remain at that point, trying to counter Johnston.  This was impossible.  A sizable number, perhaps even a majority, of the Labour voters wanted to Leave.  Labour ended up looking neither hot nor cold but lukewarm.  (The suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn was a terrorist sympathiser didn’t help.)  The voters saw Johnston as the guy who was actually trying to get something done and flocked to him.  And so Johnston won one of the most decisive victories in modern history.

The core of the problem was that the various political parties were being torn into different factions.  Europhobes and Europhiles were the least of them.  Labour had long since lost touch with its original base – the British working class – and was reeling from a series of scandals that made it difficult to campaign effectively.  The Liberal Democrats were weakened by their alliance with the Tories.  The SNP unable to square the circle between Scottish Independence and membership of the EU.  People wanted good solid leaders who did good solid work for their constituents.   The blunt truth is that issues such as transgender bathroom rights are of no concern to the vast majority of the population.  They want – they need – jobs, law and order and to feel, perhaps most of all, that London is listening to them. 

It says a lot about how far we’ve fallen, even before COVID-19, that Boris Johnston is the best of the bunch.

***

But how did we get into this mess in the first place?

It is often said, by Tories, that Margaret Thatcher was the last Prime Minister with any actual balls.  This remark often draws scorn, or the usual accusations designed to deflect attention from the real point, but there’s a grain of truth in it.  Thatcher was the last major political figure to take a stand and challenge people to either stand beside her or oppose her.  The lady was not for turning.  Thatcher made it clear where she stood, for better or worse.  This was not always an advantage – she made mistakes, including one that eventually ended her career – but it made things simple.  The issues were always clear.  People were always with her or against her.

However, her worst mistake was not truly hers.  Her successors drew the wrong lessons from her career.  To take a stand and stick to it, to be strident in the defence of one’s country and one’s party, was a mistake … or so they thought.  They chose to believe that Thatcher had effectively sunk her own party, destroying it for a generation.  But if this was true, why did John Major – her handpicked successor – win re-election in 1992?  Sure, Major was no Thatcher.  But if Thatcher had been as lethal to the Tories as her enemies insisted, he should have lost.  Why?

It was true that the Tories were going through a period of soul-searching.  Thatcher’s resignation undermined others, including the ones who’d put the knife in her back.  Even the ones who disliked Thatcher found it hard to respect people they considered traitors. But it is also true that politics does not take place in a vacuum.  Major won, at least in part, because he faced no serious opponent.  Neither Neil Kinnock nor Paddy Ashdown possessed the appeal necessary to lure voters away from the Tories.  Indeed, Major won the popular vote (although he did suffer a reduced majority (MPs in the House)).

This changed in 1997.  Tony Blair rose to power on a campaign that could basically be defined as ‘all things to all men.’  Blair had star power.  He promised a new world – he even rebranded Labour as New Labour – and reached out to factions that felt marginalised by the Tories.  In doing so, he laid the groundwork for long-term disaster.  By papering over the cracks within the Labour Party, and failing to tend to Labour’s base, he slowly alienated voters and fellow politicians.  Worst of all, Blair was unable to focus on making decisions and getting things done.  He wanted to be popular and therefore found it hard to commit himself to anything.  (For American readers, Blair and Obama have an awful lot in common.) In short, Blair had a wonderful opportunity to do whatever he wanted – more or less – and threw it away.

The War on Terror actually illustrated Blair’s weaknesses as a politician.  On the home front, Blair was unable to take decisive steps against terror, as he was torn between the need to do something and fear of being called a racist.  The results were predictable.  The terrorists and their supporters grew bolder, while attitudes hardened on the other side.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair committed troops to battle without either thinking about the end game or ensuring they had the manpower, supplies and political backing to do their job.  Blair was lucky, in a way.  He benefited from a political oddity in that the Tories also supported the war – or at least the troops.  It made it harder for anyone to oppose him successfully. 

Perversely, this just made the disaster worse.  Blair was allowed to look away, to pretend the war wasn’t happening as the successful invasion gave way to a brutal insurgency.  He became obsessed with spin, to the point a Labour aide – Jo Moore – was able to say that 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news.  Blair was unable to get to grips with the problems facing the UK because he wanted to be popular, because he didn’t seem to be able to deal with criticism.  He preferred to kowtow to the media rather than make hard choices.  He was not, and never was, a Churchill, a Pitt or even a Thatcher. 

I’m not going to go into detail of what happened as Blair gave way to Brown and then to Cameron, but I think the outline is clear.  British politics had become increasingly factionalised, British politicians becoming more beholden to interest groups than the British public.  Brussels was increasingly seen (not entirely fairly) as the villain, as a politically-correct force more interested in wishy-washy statements than the interests of the population.  Those who dared to raise local issues were smeared by politicians – remember how Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a bigot? There was no longer any trust between voters and politicians, no longer any sense the politicians put voters first.  Indeed, there was a sense the country was decaying from within.  The jobs were going, once-prosperous towns were crumbling, crime and terrorism was on the rise, police and military forces were being cut, political correctness was tearing away at Britain’s guts .. people were growing desperate.  People wanted a change.

And so we saw a rise in fringe parties like UKIP.  Why should voters vote for parties that don’t represent them?

Why indeed?

Cameron’s failure lay in misreading the mood of the country.  He thought he could silence his critics and reunite the Tories under his banner.  He was wrong, because his interests – and those of the political class – had diverged from those of the voters.   The faith that politicians would do the right thing – or at least what they thought was the right thing – was gone.  And Brussels didn’t make it any easier.  It was a serious mistake to refuse to grant Cameron any concessions at all (although that is said with the benefit of hindsight).  Dislike of the EU crossed party barriers, making it impossible for any of the major parties to take a strong stance.  Cameron resigned, May was left to square the circle.  She too could not commit herself.  And so Johnston became Prime Minister.

The mood of the country was murderous.  Johnston sought to prorogue Parliament, at least in part to ensure that his opponents could not scupper the deal and/or give the EU the impression they might.  This may or may not have been a legitimate tactic.  (It’s debatable.)  What was not debatable was that the legal bids against prorogation, which succeeded, were seen as backstabbing by the public.  They were a tactical success at the cost of strategic defeat, as it was yet another reminder that the interests of politicians and their constituents had diverged.  Johnston called an election in December 2019 and won handily. 

So, we’re back in 2020.  Where do we go from here?

5 Responses to “Musings on the Future of British Politics (1)”

  1. Christopher Reed June 7, 2020 at 1:04 am #

    Chris, the E.U. was always going to play hardball with the U.K.. If they didn’t then there was a good chance that others might have taken the chance to leave for slights imagined or not. Let’s face it the E.U. has always been a punching bag for local politicians. They (the local politicians) make promises they were unable to keep or make mistakes they don’t want to be blamed for, so they pin it on the E.U.. Complain about a little overreach here, a helping of blaming E.U. regulations there and voila ready made excuse for why my fuck up isn’t my fault. I’m not saying the E.U. doesn’t have problems or that it doesn’t punch down, just saying there’s a lot of punching up as well.

    • Callum G June 7, 2020 at 7:43 am #

      I think the point is that they went too far in their unwillingness to cooperate.

      It is one thing to play hard, and another to be a bully. And in a world where faith in the EU was already tenuous, acting like bullies only seemed to confirm all the bad press (and outright lies) that they were under attack by.

      Simply put, their overreaction made them the bad guys, and that will be used against them for many years.

      • Hanno Frerichs June 7, 2020 at 12:43 pm #

        Well another problem that the EU had, was basically that the UK had ones under Thatcher (mostly rightfully) got concessions.
        But of course that wasn’t all that popular with most of continental Europa getting a second round of major concessions wasn’t going to happen as it felt a bit like blackmailing we gona go if you don’t do what we want.

  2. Steven Vincent June 8, 2020 at 5:04 pm #

    Indeed and what the EU needed to do was treat the whole thing like a bluff. “OK so you don’t want to play by our rules, please sign here and get out.” Despite being a Brexitieer I think that the shock would have enabled Cameron to turn it around with an unacceptable exit deal and 2nd referendum. As it is Britain’s best outcome is to get out and start again.
    Still I think Chris’s main points are not really about Brexit but about bi-party politics and the disconnect between the Political Professionals at all levels (EU, Westminster and elsewhere).
    I am appauled about Police Brutality in the US and have been aware of it before. That death was a major crime. Unfortunatly I don’t see that making it a Race Issue is anything more than Rent-a-mob, especially when brought to British Streets. Treat it as Murder 1 and leave the race of both parties out of it would be far more effective.

  3. Big Ben June 9, 2020 at 5:06 pm #

    So the two things I always contemplate when discussions of Western democracies come up:
    1) A two party system is simple, if somewhat lacking in choice and nuance. It seems in recent times to have devolved into being forced to choose the lesser of two evils. (Trump/Biden … two demonstrably senile elderly white men whose best days are long behind them.) But it seems that a majority of voters don’t really study either the candidates or the issues, even when offered a simple either/or choice. Creating a three, four, etc. party system probably wouldn’t work any better because then you’d be expecting a lazy, ignorant and/or irrationally fanatical single-issue electorate to study even more candidates and issues, when for the most part they’re incapable of studying two.

    2). The single issue voter. My elderly mother usually votes Democrat, even though she’s a staunch pro-life Catholic. However, she’s pro-life all the way – against the death penalty, supports rational gun control, against cuts to education and children’s services (over 30% of every “welfare” dollar in America goes to a child under 18 years old), would like to see a chunk of the DoD’s annual budget go to the State Department and other government agencies.
    It seems more and more voters have become single issue fanatics. Pro-gun, so they’ll NEVER vote for a democrat. Pro-choice, so they’ll NEVER vote republican … even if 75% of a candidate’s platform would otherwise help them overall.
    The days of a pro-life, pro-gun control fiscally and socially moderate Republican are long gone. No such beast could survive any republican primary anywhere in America. Ditto any democrat on their side of the issues.

    Moderation is dead.

    It’s a fun and frightening experiment, democracy is. I’d propose several possible fixes, but then we’d have to vote on them and, well … we’d likely end up with something unexpected at best, or nightmarish at worst. Like Brexit. Or Trump.

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