Articles - December 2019


Well, Almost
Quentin Walsh

Boris Johnson’s sweeping election victory means that the United Kingdom will finally leave the European Union, very likely as early as January 31, 2020. Details of the divorce agreement have yet to be finalized with Brussels, but with an overall majority of 75 seats in the new House of Commons, Johnson has the votes to barrel through whatever is agreed upon with the European Union, and Britain’s 46-year experiment of being part of a unified Europe, which never ceased to be acrimonious, will be over.

In Brussels, realization has set in that “this time, Europe has really lost the United Kingdom,” as the French newspaper Le Monde put it. “A sad day for Europe,” one senior European diplomat in Brussels commented. A sad day, too, for the many Brits who had voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum – and a deep shock for Labour supporters to see their party reduced to a shambles.

That the election was virtually a referendum on Brexit is reflected in the result, in particular the devastating Labour Party result. Pro-Brexit British voted solidly Conservative, regardless of whether they were regular supporters or had in the past voted Labour. “Remain” Brits, who didn’t want to leave the European Union, split their vote between the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens. All three had campaigned on the promise of a fresh look at the Brexit issue in the form of a new referendum.

Caught in the middle was the Labour Party which suffered significant losses in the party’s working class strongholds, mainly in the north of England, and Wales, handing the historic workers’ party its worst defeat since the 1930s. Cities and towns that had been Labour strongholds for generations were suddenly lost to the Conservatives.

Labour’s meltdown was the subject of much post-election soul searching. Was it a rejection of left wing party leader Jeremy Corbin, as many disillusioned Labourites believe? Or was it widespread disapproval that Labour would have prolonged the interminable Brexit saga by holding another referendum – while the Conservative electoral slogan was “Let’s get Brexit done?” Or possibly the fact that Labour had dangled the promise of an ambitious program adding about $90 billion to short-term public spending that many found neither credible nor affordable?

Whatever the answer, the election result has upended traditional voting patterns. “A cross-class coalition” voted Conservative, says Matthew Goodwin, professor at the University of Kent. Boris Johnson, Goodwin said, had “grasped the now fundamental rule to lean a little bit to the left on economy, and a little bit right on culture,” to create a broader social base. Johnson’s challenge is now to fulfill the opposite expectations of bankers and people in business pushing for trade deals, and coal miners put out of work by the global economy.

The numbers reflect the Conservative significant victory. The party won 365 seats (326 are needed for a clear majority), the best result since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory. Labour ended up with 203 seats, having lost their MPs in 59 districts, many of them “safe” Labour seats for decades.

But the election has also further exposed some widening cracks in the political surface. In Scotland, the pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP) came close to sweeping the board, winning 48 out of 59 seats, and immediately began plans for an independence referendum. “I accept, regretfully, that (Boris Johnson) has a mandate for Brexit in England, but he has no mandate whatsoever to take Scotland out of the European Union,” declared Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader and head of the Scottish government. Johnson’s government in London can – and, on present showing, will – reject a referendum held by Scotland, but it would create tension and anger between London and Edinburgh.

The election could also cause collateral damage in Ireland. With their enlarged majority the Conservatives no longer needed the parliamentary support of the Irish Democratic Unionist Party as they had in their previous governing coalition. And in addition to no longer holding the balance of power at Westminster, the DUP lost two key seats out of their previous 10.

Furthermore, the position of Ireland in Johnson’s current Brexit deal would mean re-establishing a de facto border between British Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, still an EU member, which many fear could inflame the tensions between those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of U.K. and those who want it reunited with the Republic of Ireland.

So what’s next in the Brexit process? It may be finished, but it is far from over. European leaders await Prime Minister Johnson’s next move. He campaigned on a pledge to complete any trade negotiation with the European Union by the end of 2020, but there is now nothing to stop him extending that time frame if it proves to his advantage. As long as negotiations go on, the U.K. remains in a period of transition, legally out of the bloc, but with its relationship essentially unchanged. In other words, he would have the best of both worlds – and it’s the sort of ambivalence that seems to suit his personality.

In Washington meanwhile, the London election result has been scrutinized for transferable lessons. For example, anyone who thinks Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are dangerously left wing need to look at the British Labour Party election manifesto to get a sense of what real left wing government is all about.

Corbyn’s party planned to begin nationalizing major utilities, including water and energy, within a 100 days of taking office, introduce a 32-hour work week, give 10 percent of shares in large companies to workers, increase the power of the labor unions, impose 66 as the retirement age, and spend billions on public housing, etc. The degree to which British voters were unimpressed was reflected in the large numbers who shifted support to a political party they had despised for generations.

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