World

A Realignment Election in the U.K.

Boris Johnson speaks during an event launching the Conservative Party’s general election campaign in England, November 6, 2019. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
The pro-Brexit vote in U.K. politics turned out to be as steady as the guards at Waterloo.

‘Unseen, in the background, fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove.” Thus P. G. Wodehouse, the literary master, on one particularly irritating eternal truth of human life. Fate’s lead-packed glove landed squarely on my own solar plexus at about 2 a.m. on Thursday the 12th of December in Central London when I realized that I had been struck down by a ruthless virus with no sense of occasion.

To grasp the full horror of this account, you must know the context. First, December the 12th was Election Day in Britain. Second, I have been an opponent of U.K. membership of the European Union since before we joined it. I campaigned against staying inside the EU when it was still the EEC — the European Economic Community — in the 1975 referendum. I kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of the EEC as it gradually moved from being a free trade area to become a political union. I argued for the second referendum when that change seemed irreversible. And since June 2016 when the British people voted to Leave in that referendum, I’ve written about little else than the case for the honest implementation of the people’s vote. And when I thought and hoped that the election would produce the final coup de grace to the Establishment’s Remainer resistance, I booked six days and nights in London to write an eye-witness account of this long-awaited Liberation.

But I had ceased to be an eye witness.

For the next four days I was sunk deep in a fevered slumber, rarely conscious, awakening at irregular intervals to dash to the bathroom or to hear the Town Clerk of some remote hamlet or burg slowly enunciating: “as the returning office for Puddlecombe-on-the-Wye I can declare that the number of ballots cast for all candidates is Dr. Letitia Fey, Green Party, 1007 votes, Rory Main-Chancer, Conservative . . .” but never getting to the end before I blanked out again. I had the odd feeling of being asleep even when I was awake. And this odd sleepy detachment — broken only by my transfer from the hotel to the Reform Club where I was staying from late Friday — didn’t really begin to lift until twenty-four hours later when I could tweet again. Even now I’m slightly groggy.

But I had woken to a better world which I’m slowly getting the handle of. Here are a few preliminary thoughts on what happened while I was in a stupor:

This was a realignment election — and because of Brexit. There’s been a debate in the Tory party between those (e.g., Tim Montgomerie) who believe that the Tory party could and should win a larger share of working class votes and those who thought (e.g., Matthew Parris) that this was mistaken since the working class is shrinking and there were more voters to be had from moderate conservatives in the well-educated classes. The election has decided that question in favor of those who wanted to go the blue-collar route. The Tories won in all social groups, but the swing to them in Northern working-class constituencies was larger than elsewhere and gave them a near-landslide. And that was for two Brexit-related reasons. First, Brexit was essentially a patriotic cause that appealed to both Tories and blue-collar workers; second, the contempt for Brexit and its supporters shown by the Labour Party and the left intelligentsia drove home the realization in the working class that they were despised by the very people who claimed to lead them. A realignment of British politics bringing the workers into a new Toryism would probably have happened anyway. Indeed, it has been happening slowly and gradually. But Brexit and this election have accelerated it.

Another factor in this is that the pro-Brexit vote in U.K. politics turned out to be as steady as the guards at Waterloo. This contradicts the view of the Remain establishment after June 2016 that the referendum result had been an irrational spasm that could be corrected by a public campaign of explanation-cum-bullying. The voters would see sense — indeed, they would have to. But the performance of the U.K. economy after 2016 undermined what the Remainers had predicted before the referendum and made the Brexit voters skeptical of their later arguments — and still more of their condescending attitudes to the Brexit voters (with whom they never really engaged in serious political conversation. Anyway, the Brexit vote stood firm — and Boris won.

Mark Lees from Oldham in the U.K. was the first person to notice (in a tweet) that the 2016 Brexit referendum is so far the only referendum in the history of the EU that it has been unable to reverse, ignore, amend, or rerun because it didn’t approve of the result. And that makes it extremely significant. The doctrine of “ever-closer union,” as well as being an instruction, is also yet another expression of faith in historical inevitability. Any check to it, let alone any reversal, undermines the faith. As a result the pressure on Brussels is stronger that they negotiate a post-Brexit free trade deal amicably and reasonably rather than risk a No Deal Brexit which, if it works, would further weaken the faith.

Brexit turmoil now grips the Labour Party. There were two big reasons Labour lost: an extremist political leadership and its obstruction of Brexit. Both had anti-democratic features. Either one was enough to invite an election defeat; both together made the defeat a massive one. They are now engaged in a debate over which issue was the more toxic on the doorstep: Corbynite Leftism or Brexit. That means the Corbynites have an interest in arguing that Labour’s anti-Brexit policy was the stronger reason. Unfortunately, as one cynical tweeter pointed out, the Corbynites were in charge of the party when it became so toxically anti-Brexit. And it’s only just beginning.

All in all, the U.K. election reminds me of Woody Allen’s famous parody of a college commencement address: “We face a choice between two paths. One leads to failure, shame, and degradation; the other to success, honor, and glory. Let’s pray we will have the wisdom to choose wisely.

Amazingly enough, we did.


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