Some kind of 'Brexit'

Laurence Whitehead

6 mins - 13 de Diciembre de 2019, 20:59

With 43.6% of the vote on a 67% turnout Boris Johnson's Conservative Party has secured a theoretical parliamentary majority of 78 seats - the largest for two decades. As for the opposition Labour Party with 32.2% of the vote, it has suffered defeat on a scale only comparable to that of 1983 in terms of vote share. In terms of seats the result for Labour is even worse: a loss of 59, bringing it down to 203, the lowest level since 1935. Conservatives gained 47 seats, while the Scottish Nationalists came third, up 13 to 48 seats. Fourth was the Liberal Democrats with only 11 seats (down one), despite their total vote score of 11.6%, or three times the amount gained by the more concentrated Scotland only party.
This is a pivotal moment in British politics, which brings to a close a five year cycle of disorientation and paralysis, and paves the way for a more politically stable and effective government which will complete Brexit and reposition the UK's external and domestic politics for a generation to come. Barring extremely unlikely contingencies the Conservative Party will govern alone until December 2024. Under the Fixed Term Parliament rule it could only call an earlier election with the agreement of either the Labour Party or (just conceivably) as part of a deal with the Scottish Nationalist Party (which would doubtless demand another independence referendum as the price for its consent). Given the geographically restricted appeal of the various anti-Conservative forces, and their deep programmatic disunity, the prevailing assumption for the next few years must be that the Tories have resumed their status as the 'natural party of government' for the coming generation.

Note, however, that this is on the basis of only 43.6% electoral support, just 1.2% higher than in 2017. A significant proportion of the new Conservative electorate are white working class males in depressed industrial areas - traditionally Labour strongholds where the swing to the right breaks longstanding social taboos. The Conservatives won only a tenth of the seats in Scotland, and their traditional counterparts in Northern Island (hardline Unionists) have just lost their predominance. More 'Nationalists' than 'Unionists' were returned there for the first time ever. Fundamentally, it is the first-past-the-post electoral system, and the continuation of a bi-polar electoral divide (Labour and Conservatives jointly harvested 75.8% of all votes), that now provides Johnson with his mastery in Westminster, just as it previously enthroned Thatcher and then Blair, despite the fact that in all three cases more voters opposed them than gave their support. In particular, Tory support is far weaker among the young than the old; and in the great metropoli (especially Greater London) than is secondary cities. Female voters are also less supportive than men.

In principle, therefore, an intelligent and well-led opposition alliance could reasonably hope to turn the tables on the Tories, in particular if the consequences of Brexit prove as harmful as Remainers expect, and if the Johnson prospectus proves a set of false promises that fail to unify his spatch-cocked assemblage of hopeful supporters. Party loyalties are far weaker than before, and not even the artificial props provided by the UK electoral system can be counted upon to outweigh rising electoral volatility and latent citizen discontents. But on that argument Johnson’s opponents already had three and a half years (since the Brexit referendum which he won for the Leave side in June 2016) to identify the danger and to co-ordinate their positions in order to block it. It is their failure to prioritize joint action against his Europhobe thrust that accounts for the scale of their present debacle. The immediate post-election indications are that they are likely to continue in that self-defeating mode, at least for a while.

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So some kind of Brexit will now emerge. Johnson has won such a clear mandate and majority that he will have a free hand to determine what form that will actually take. The implacable hardliners of the European Research Group will lack the veto power they were hoping for in the event of a smaller victory, and Nigel Farage's minions will remain excluded from parliament. The moderate conservatives who tried to resist Johnson's takeover of their party have also been comprehensively trounced. The Liberal Democrats who only a few weeks ago pretended to believe that they could secure a parliamentary mandate to disregard the 2016 referendum result are also acutely discomfited, losing one seat (down to 11) -that of their own party leader. European leaders in Brussels are now clear who they must deal with, and must feel some sense of relief that whatever the terms of the exit, at least London's total inability to settle on a position has ended. Johnson's most telling electoral remark was that "Jeremy Corbyn used to be indecisive, but now he is not so sure".

In constitutional terms the most critical remaining difficulty concerns two of the four entities that make up the so called United Kingdom. The Scottish Nationalists will legislate in Edinburgh for a new independence referendum to enable Scotland to remain in the EU after the end of the transition that is due for completion at the end of 2020. This will not be allowed by Johnson’s government in Westminster, so the divergence between English and Scottish national projects will deepen, with unpredictable and possibly explosive effects.

At the same time, the Good Friday Agreement provides that the people of Northern Ireland can hold a referendum on reunification if it seems that a majority of Ulster vote may want it. However, it is again for the Westminster government to decide whether that condition is met, so again the potential for constitutional explosions is baked in. Although Irish Nationalists won nine seats compared to only eight for the Unionists (with one Alliance MP neutral on the issue) there is not a clear majority for such a step -at least not yet. To aggravate the tension in Ireland Ulster's main sounding board for community opinion the Stormont Assembly is still shuttered after three years of DUP obduracy.

Thus both Scotland and Northern Ireland are very much out of step with the English nationalism of Johnson's new electoral base, and their grievances could well feed on each other and become destabilizing to the Union as a whole. Wales is left somewhere in the middle, so the ballast for the Johnson project must come from a surge of English nationalism. In all this Spanish readers may recognize some parallels with their own constitutional predicament.
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