30 May 2019
Nothing Changes (.UK)
By J R Thomas
Never in the field of political commentary has so much rubbish being laid down in the prints and salons of British politics. To wit: Mr Farage’s Brexit Party will not sweep to triumph in a general election this autumn; the local and Euro elections do not signal triumph for the Lib-Dems; Labour will not find its voter appeal by becoming straightforwardly Remainer; the Conservatives are not about to do a disappearing act, the SNP should not yet plan for a Hard McBorder; the Green Party is not beginning the great green walk to power. And 600,000 votes and no seats does not represent a major victory for the Change.UK Party, Ms Soubry.
What has happened is simply a protest vote on a mighty scale, but on a single issue, that, of course, of Brexit. It is a considerable indictment of modern British history teaching, or perhaps of British Government and Society teaching, if that course still exists (maybe therein lies the trouble), that the long and honourable history of the protest vote seems to have disappeared from the memory of the commentariat.
In 1962 the Orpington by-election result astounded the known world, or at least Westminster, when this safe Conservative seat fell to Eric Lubbock and the Liberal Party. Lubbock would have been the perfect Tory candidate for the seat, Harrow educated, an engineer who worked for Rolls-Royce, heir to a peerage. That may explain why he held the seat until 1970, but in fact he was, at least in social matters, a radical in the modern Liberal tradition. His victory was heralded as the end of the Tory Party and the beginning of the return of the Liberals. As you will have noticed, it wasn’t.
In 1981 Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers, and David Owen, all moderate former Labour ministers, resigned from the Labour Party which they characterised as unelectably left wing, and started the Social Democratic Party – the SDP. Within 18 months they had won four by-elections from Labour. The Labour response was to move even further left, disdaining the floating voter and the middle ground with the 1983 manifesto characterised as “the longest suicide note in history”. The Conservatives held power for a further 14 years and by 1988 the SDP had merged with the Liberals, to give us the Lib-Dems. And Labour under a young chap called Tony Blair had reinvented itself as a modern moderate leftist party and in 1997 swept to power.
In that 1997 election a new party appeared on the scene, the United Kingdom Independence Party, campaigning to bring about Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. In fact there were two, the other being the Referendum Party, led by the Anglo-French businessman, Sir James Goldsmith. He, and they, wanted a Referendum on EU membership – with the intention of Leaving, not Remaining. The death of Sir James closed the Referendum Party but UKIP powered on and in 2009 were second in the Euro elections that year; in 2014 they were the largest Euro party and also won two by-elections from the Conservatives, being anointed by many sections of the press as the new force in British, or at least English, politics. Where are they in 2019? Not a single Euro MP and all seats contested in the local elections lost. Some force.
Which really rather goes to show that we have seen all this before. The nature of the Parliamentary system – even the physical layout of government on one side and the opposition facing it across the gangway – is that it pushes political interests into coalitions. That has generally worked well enough, leading to grumbling from party members with strong views, but also the realisation that it gives (most of the time) stable governments able to deliver much of their mandates. But just occasionally along comes some topic which cannot be compromised and which cuts across party lines. Free trade in the 1840’s, free trade versus Imperial preference in the 1890’s, appeasement in the 1930’s, and Brexit in 2019 – which you might argue is free trade all over again. Then the party system for a while cannot cope; M.P’s switch parties, new parties arise, the voters vote strongly against “their” party candidates.
That is where we are now; amplified on one side by a party leader who was really remarkably unfitted for the job and could not see it; and on the other by a party leader whose views are out of sync with many of his party supporters and voters – and if he does see it, does not care. Both parties need to find their way back to a vision which will appeal to a broad swathe of the electorate and to a sense of unity which will enable them to settle back into the coalitions of interests which they historically are. Both of these objectives, we must cynically admit, are greatly assisted by victory at the polling stations. Mrs Thatcher was extremely unpopular in her own party by 1981 as she administered the corrective medicine which she and her team believed essential. By 1983 and with the always useful boost of a military victory she won a major electoral triumph and from her party’s view she could do little wrong for a long time thereafter. The loud voices of dissent raised against Tony Blair following his 1997 victory were silenced by his continuing winning, even it was done by stealing the Tories semi-Thatcherite clothes. No doubt had Mr Corbyn won the 2017 election, his control over his party would be much stronger than it is now, and Tom Watson much quieter. Even Mrs May could have easily survived a full term had she delivered Brexit – though it was the disaster of 2017, demonstrating her not to be a winner, that really brought her down.
Now both parties need to get back to that consensual mode that has ensured their long term survival. The obstacle is not Mr Farage and his highly disparate group of supporters – try forming that lot into a coalition able to fight a general election – or Sir Vince and his opportunist party of pothole repairers, but Brexit. Brexit is not capable of conciliation or compromise; either we Remain or we Leave. (A weak Leave, a partial Leave, will not solve the problem, but merely prolong the issue.) But once we have left, enough to satisfy most Leavers, then politics will return to normal, the parties will reformulate themselves, new leadership will be chosen (the Conservatives may need one leader to deal with Brexit and then to be sacrificed for another, younger, dynamic, untainted, to unify the party), and the protest voters will return to old alliances; job done.
There is one reservation that has to be applied to this theory – that of what happens if Westminster has its way over the apparent wishes of the country, and we end up Remaining. Then you should scrap all the above wisdom; we really are into new territory. Politics will continue to be about one issue and the Brexit Party and Mr Farage may find that their dreams of general election victories are not impossible. In this context maybe Mr Corbyn is sensible to be thinking seriously about a second Referendum; if his party will abide by the result then whether the result be “Leave” or Remain he has, Cameron-like, procured the answer from the people without breaking his party on the issue and electoral victory might be his reward.