Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Election in Britain: The Unexpected as the Obstacle Course
Election in Britain: The Unexpected as the Obstacle Course

Election in Britain: The Unexpected as the Obstacle Course

  • Jeremy Black
  • June 5, 2017
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

(Source: left Garry Knight/Flickr; right U.S. Department of Defense)

“Events, Dear Boy, Events” Harold MacMillan’s warning about politics has been fully vindicated. The 2017 British general election began as a surprise, became an apparently predictable victory parade, and was then blown open by events.

The events that attracted most attention were the ISIS-inspired terrorist assaults on Manchester and London. These attacks demonstrated the extent to which politicians could often scarcely influence, let alone control, events, and also the interaction of domestic and international trends and events. The Manchester attack, which led to the largest loss of life in Britain in a terrorist attack since 2005, was more effective in affecting attitudes because it was staged not in London, the “other” to many provincial Britons, but, instead in a major provincial center. It was an attack that reflected warnings by the government but that served to help the Labour opposition. This was true at a number of levels. Labour argued that the government was at fault for cutting police numbers and ignoring the major expansion of expenditure on the Intelligence services. More subtly, Labour implied that terrorism was a direct consequence of British policy in the Middle East. This argument chimed with the neutralism of the party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his opposition to Tony Blair and to the nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the inclusive popular response in Manchester to the atrocity was subliminally employed to suggest that Labour (the prime political party there) best represented the character of the nation, fortifying its advocacy of the National Health Service, the most potent aspect of the British civic religion actively and successfully sponsored by the Left.

The event that said even more about British politics was the volte-face forced on the Conservatives when they tried to talk some sense to the electorate about the funding of care for the elderly. That issue blew up in their face with a dramatic fall in electoral support, one that led to a rise in disquiet about the Conservative leader, Theresa May. She had been criticised, notably in the Times, for failing to use its popularity in order to talk sense about the costs of an entitlement society. Quite right, but the electorate really does like to have its cake and eat it, to employ an image from the national obesity crisis. The commitment to current arrangements for the National Health Service is a key instance. Why May thought that social care should be different is unclear. She was wrong.

This misjudgement of the popular mood provided an opportunity for Labour to gain popular traction. May sensibly reversed policy in the resulting furore, but the damage had been done. May was hit both by the reputation of a U-turn and because she was held to be insensitive. The emotional, sensitive side of politics had been won by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. This was astonishing, given the multiple deficiencies of the latter. May’s stance on reason, however, was counterbalanced by an emotional charge in favour of Corbyn.

At the time of writing, May is still ahead in most of the polls. This advantage is countered by the failure to push through boundary reform, ensuring that Labour continues to enjoy advantages in terms of overrepresentation of seats, as, indeed, do the Scottish Nationalists. “A week is a long time in politics,” as Harold Wilson, a former Labour Prime Minister, observed. In early-mid May, the narrative was of assured Conservative victory and the discussion was how large the majority would be. The account was largely about a landslide, and the debate was over how large. However, that talk, which suggested that May would be another Thatcher, was always problematic.

Where then is the election at present? The right has reunified around Theresa May and Brexit, which, to a degree, represents the ditching of David Cameron’s plan of steering for the center and dividing the Liberal Democrats, a plan to which he was advised by friends who made no secret of their loathing of right-wing Conservatism and its standard-bearer, the Daily Mail. Cameron’s years as party leader of the Conservatives saw a marked strengthening of the further-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Now, that party is in freefall, which strengthens the Conservatives, although also, crucially, seeing off a challenge to Labour in many of its seats, especially in the north of England. Although May is moving to the right, she is doing so selectively, and many of her instincts are centrist and interventionist. May is a Euro-sceptic, anti-immigration One Nation Tory: she is a strong supporter of industrial strategy and wants to do much more to help develop the economies and life-chances of people living in the Midlands and the North.

However, an awfully big political bet is being placed on a successful Brexit. As a result, May, by holding an election very early, has, if she wins, bought an extra two years before the following general election has to be held in 2022, and that is more valuable politically than a bigger majority. Having won as she is likely to do, May will then be able to play her hand when she sees how events play out. It is easier now for the “Leave” vote to consolidate around the Conservatives when no one knows precisely what Brexit will look like (but the Conservatives can say all the right things about what they want), while the “Remain” vote fractures around the other parties.

A compromise Brexit is the likely scenario. It will cost the government support on the right, where there will be shouts of betrayal, and on the center, if there are economic problems and a stronger opposition. Those are for the future and probably inevitable, with all sorts of difficult political consequences. As a result, having the election now and positioning it as the Conservatives now are doing is very shrewd tactically. That is for the good, although we saw with Cameron in 2014-16 that thinking tactically can lead to strategic crisis, first over Scottish independence and then over the EU. If May does badly, a similar conclusion will be argued for now.

At present, despite Corbyn’s highly successful mobilisation of the youth vote, in part by bribing them with free university tuition, the Conservatives are marginally in the lead in the opinion polls and also did well in the local council elections in early May, notably winning the mayoralty election for Birmingham. The lesson from the council elections can be qualified on the grounds that most of the electorate did not vote, while local factors are often involved in these elections, including (amazing thought) the quality of the candidates. However, it is far better to have done well than the converse. Moreover, in the UK the trend in local election results generally matches that in the national elections.

The Conservatives face the difficulty of incumbency and the attendant unpopularity, but, more seriously, that they captured many of the vulnerable seats in 2010 and, even more, 2015. A lot of the Labour seats remaining are in areas where voting Labour comes in with mother’s milk. This is at least the case in volatile London, where Labour indeed made significant gains in 2015, but London’s vote against Brexit is a key factor as is the extent to which many immigrants have been reluctant to vote for the Conservatives.

The latter will probably win new seats from Labour mostly in the Midlands and in the North-West and is also hopeful in Wales. The Liberal Democrats may win back some seats they lost to the Conservatives in 2015 in London and in the South-West, but their leader is singularly unimpressive and their support for “Remain,” while likely to win them some support may well compromise their appeal to traditional Liberal Democrat voters in the South-West. The more insistent media coverage makes it much harder to say different things in particular constituencies. Instead, there is an inconvenient emphasis on consistency. If the SNP, which has most of the Scottish seats, loses a few that will also benefit the Conservatives. There is a ready contrast and end. The bet has been made.

For Britain’s allies, the situation is highly discouraging. A victory for Corbyn will damage NATO and the Western alliance greatly. This man is a politician who has praised such malign figures as Maduro, who has had links with Hamas and other such organisations, and who is almost instinctively hostile to the United States. Moreover, if he does well, it will be in effective support with the Scottish Nationalists, whose separatism will also weaken NATO. Corbyn has made no secret of his hostility to the nuclear deterrent, and his allies have similar views.

Thus, the entire direction of British politics will be toward neutralism. As far as the United States is concerned, the almost casual way in which the international architecture of American power is being discarded or lost is notable. The understanding of the complex pattern of interaction and co-operation seems to be beyond many American politicians.

If May wins, she will maintain the alignment and increase defence spending, but she will be wounded by a poorly-handled campaign. Criticism of her for relying on a small group of advisors and for adopting a presidential style reaches deep into the Cabinet, and it is unlikely that the existing leadership will survive without a challenge. What that will lead to is unclear, but both Thatcher and Blair ultimately fell even though undefeated. From that perspective, the auspices are not good for May. If she wins, she will need to convince the party, notably by pushing through boundary reform and reconnecting with more of the electorate, so as to lessen the possibility of Labour winning the following election.

Jeremy Black is author of A History of Britain: 1945 to Brexit (Indiana University Press, 2017).