The ‘Earthquake’ of the UK Elections
The ‘Earthquake’ of the UK Elections
Some in the British media chose the word ‘Earthquake’ to describe the Conservatives sweeping victory in the latest UK elections.
As an observer of the British political scene for the last 41 years, I find nothing similar to what has happened, and what it may lead to, except the spring of 1979 elections.
That was when Margaret Thatcher came to power on the wreckage of a tired and divided Labour Party, controlled by stubborn fossilized trades unions living in the past, and preaching more than century-old slogans and dreams. Thatcher benefitted then, just as Boris Johnson and his followers benefitted now, from two main factors:
The First is a technological – economic factor in the shape of the rapid technological advances, which was, and is, in a confrontation with manual labor; specifically, unskilled manual labor.
The Second is the international political situation, and the UK’s position on the world political map during the latter years of the ‘Cold War’, the imminent demise of the USSR and the ‘Warsaw Pact’, the declining British influence within the ‘Commonwealth’, and the rise of Reaganism in the USA.
In the last elections, the votes of the ‘Old Labour’ in northern England, its industrial heartland in the Midlands, and old mining strongholds in the Welsh valleys melted away. Against the spectacular rise of the Scottish Nationalists, the presence of the once-dominant Labour collapsed; which is ironic in the land that gave Labour Ramsay McDonald, its first Prime Minister, and Keir Hardie, its former formidable co-founder and the Left’s icon.
Just like what happened four decades ago, technological advances seem to have brought about an economic change with far-reaching political change. The main difference, however, was that Margaret Thatcher four decades ago resorted to a ‘divide and rule’ strategy against the trades unions. Her strategy was to pit the more skill-based engineering and electricians unions, against the transport workers’, the miners’, and general workers’ unions.
Along with other restrictive measures, this policy made unskilled workers helpless against the unrelenting onslaught of new technologies, such as computers, robots, and IT, on their industrial jobs.
Today, the threat of technology has become compounded by globalization. In the UK, there have been two related facts: Firstly, the influx of relatively cheap labor from Eastern Europe after abolishing border controls within the European Union; and secondly, the profit-motivated decision of many major companies to transfer hundreds of jobs to low-wage foreign countries in Asia and Africa.
Here there is a great irony. The historic victory achieved by the Anglo-American ‘Right’ led by Ronald Reagan, with Margaret Thatcher’s backing, over the USSR, caused the demise of the Soviet Bloc. But the insistence of the Reagan – Thatcher alliance in ‘diluting’ the Franco-German influence, within any integrated European superstructure, pushed London to ‘speed up’ the admission of the former ‘Warsaw Pact’ countries – now mostly anti-Moscow – into the European family.
Here it is interesting to note that Thatcher, who was a culturally committed anti-European - let alone Euro federalist - used to emphasize on every occasion that she fully committed to fighting any moves towards a ‘United States of Europe’. Such a Europe would, of course, be led by the ‘founding members’ Germany, France, and the Benelux countries.
In fact, Thatcher’s ‘blackmailing’ plan scored a ‘double success’; when the increased size of the membership of the European Union diluted the influence of the ‘founding members’, and when London managed to reject the European Currency ‘the Euro’ and the ‘Schengen Treaty’ which created an area comprising 26 European states that officially abolished all passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders.
One needs to keep this background in mind when discussing what led to the latest electoral ‘earthquake’. It is also necessary to mention that devolution of power, and the change of demands’ priorities, are among the fundamentals of political practices in democratic countries
In America, ‘Reaganism’ flourished, then lost its glitter, allowing the election of two Democratic Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama - each of whom governed for eight years - before the populist extreme Right reclaimed the White House through Donald Trump. Likewise, through the years, the glitter of the ‘Thatcherist Right’ in Britain lost its glitter. Indeed, it was the Conservative Party itself which ended the Thatcher years, to calm down an openly unhappy electorate that had had enough of her dogmatism. After that, the Conservatives still lost power when new pragmatic leaders took over the Labour Party. Learning from the defeat of their radical Leftist predecessors, those new Labour leaders gradually moderated the Party’s policies and led it to a realistic Left of Centre stance. But what happened to Labour, during the last nine years, was symptomatic not only of lack of responsibility but also of very weak memory.
Following a period of contesting the ‘center ground’ between moderate Conservatives (led by John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May) and moderate Labour (led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), and a coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the British political scene was shaken by the populist campaign to leave the EU – i.e., BREXIT – exacerbated by the influx of refugees into the Continent.
The loud demands by populists, and even racist, elements for a referendum on leaving the EU, caused panic within the already Eurosceptic Conservative Party; and pushed David Cameron to commit the country to the referendum he was not forced to call. In the event, the voters decided with a small majority to leave; and it became clear that traditional Labour strongholds went in that direction too.
In the meantime, the Parliamentary Labour Party (i.e. the Labour members of Parliament), sleep-walked into giving away its advantage in electing the new Party leader; thus, allowing the trade unions’ bloc-votes and the radical grassroots activists to have the final say. This led to electing the radical Leftist veteran activist Jeremy Corbyn as a leader.
Voting in the referendum to leave the EU took place in the mood of isolationism and xenophobia in many places up and down the UK; while Greater London, in addition to Scotland and Northern Ireland voted solidly to remain.
Such an outcome was bound to cause further polarise public opinion, and intensify division and populist outbidding among Conservative supporters, and a return to confusion and stupid denial to the Labour rank and file.
The last elections took place also in such a climate and resulted in a huge victory for the Conservatives that exceeded their best expectations. On the other hand, while Labour suffered one of the worst defeats in the Party’s history, the Scottish Nationalists won 48 out of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats, and almost immediately announced that they would call for another referendum on the independence of Scotland.
How will the next few years under Boris Johnson’s look like? How will the tumult end? Will the UK remain united… or a much more devastating and atrocious ‘tsunami’ will follow the ‘earthquake’??