Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research)
The December 12 parliamentary elections in Britain were unusual in many ways, not least because for the first time in decades people were asked to choose between two starkly different visions of where they wanted the country to head: Boris Johnson’s vision of a global mercantile Britain, free from the constraints of EU membership, and the many rules and regulations that that entails; and Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist nirvana – in or out of the EU notwithstanding – taking chunks of the economy back into the public sector and defending the downtrodden against business interests. Both options came with a lot of small print which few bothered to read, but the overall perception is that this was a defining moment in British politics with far reaching consequences for decades to come.
In the end, Johnson’s vision also shared by most of the media, prevailed. His Conservative Party secured 43.6% (13,966,565 votes) while Corbyn’s Labour Party got 32.1% (10,269,565 votes). Under Britain’s rather cruel first-past-the-post election system this has translated into a large Conservative majority in the House of Commons. Apart from nationalist or region-based parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the smaller parties – the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Brexit Party – did rather badly, securing around 16% of the vote but only 12 seats in the new parliament. Meanwhile, all talk of massive defections from the two main parties into smaller parties failed to materialize.
If this election was about Brexit then the result is even stranger. Most voters actually voted for parties who were against Johnson’s Brexit deal, which is now being pushed post-haste through the House of Commons. Herein lays tomorrow’s conundrum: The Brexit debate divided British society and poisoned its politics. Fortunately, happenings such as the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, remained largely isolated incidents, but the risk that political debate will boil over into violence is always there, and has not gone away.
A lot will depend on how the new government acts in the post-Brexit reality. Will Johnson be a one-nation Tory, or a radical ideologue of the free market? With Johnson, it is always difficult to say. In the few days since the election, his speeches indicated the former, but his actions – particularly the decision to allow only eleven months for negotiating a new arrangement with the European Union, which would probably result in no-deal – indicate the latter. With the economic impact of leaving the EU starting to affect people and communities across the country, there is a risk that the ugly side of politics may raise its head.
During the elections – by offering radically different options to the British public – the two main parties were able to squeeze out dissent on the margins. However, if they now decide to move politics back towards the more familiar political center of the Blair and Major years, the emergence of radical left and right groups is very likely. Nigel Farage already made it clear before the elections that he will, after 31 January 2020, transform his Brexit Party into a Reform Party – a rather opaque name for what is likely to be a populist right-wing movement. On the other hand, the left wing of the Labour Party, spearheaded by Momentum, may not entertain a return to Blairism in a post-Corbyn era, and may seek new vehicles for moving their agenda forward. On its website, the Movement, which is mainly comprised of young people, says, “Our movement isn’t done. We want to transform Britain from top to bottom and create a society run by the interests of the many, not the few.” The process of radicalization in British politics is, therefore, not over, but simply entering a new phase.
Foreign policy challenges
On foreign policy, too, there are some stark challenges ahead. After Brexit, the UK will have to forge new arrangements with the rest of the world. Johnson and Trump already see each other as soulmates with a common vision. The “Special Relationship” that has characterized US-UK relations since the end of World War II may be about to take a new shape. Iran may be one issue on which a new US-UK convergence may emerge. So far, the UK, regardless of the Brexit debate, has remained aligned with the European position of supporting the JCPOA nuclear deal. When he was foreign secretary, Johnson was accused of having mismanaged Britain’s relationship with Iran – not only failing to secure the release of a British-Iranian women currently in custody in Iran, but worsening her plight by making “reckless” statements. Whilst Foreign Office thinking may still be in support of the JCPOA deal, Downing Street may see little benefit in irritating the Trump administration on Iran. China will probably also provide an opportunity for the new special relationship to play out.
Britain never quite made the transition from empire to European power. With its seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its world-class armed forces, diplomatic cadres and intelligence services, it has always been able to punch above its weight. But, in the same way that stark economic realities made the empire unsustainable in the second half of the 20th century, hard economic truths are likely to define Britain’s role in the world in the 21st century, regardless of the rhetoric of its politicians.
Over the last three years there were those who argued that “getting Brexit done” will end uncertainty. They may be about to find out that, in fact, a new period of uncertainty has started. Britain is about to embark on a journey into the unknown. The resilience of its institutions, the resourcefulness of its people, and the capacity of its politicians to seize the moment and exploit opportunities, means that, by the end of the journey, it is likely to carve for itself a new role in the world, and achieve a new consensus within its society. However, the journey may be longer and more hazardous than Johnson and his allies are ready to admit.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.