The immediate, clear consequence of the UK election of December 12, 2019, is that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has succeeded where Theresa May’s failed in the last general election, in 2017—by winning an emphatic parliamentary majority that can pass the legislation necessary to facilitate Britain’s departure from the European Union. The faint irony of that two-year hiatus and the handover of party leadership from May to Johnson is that the latter’s deal is rather worse—from the Brexiteers’ point of view—than the one May repeatedly failed to get past Parliament. Nevertheless, the 2019 general election will go down as the moment British voters in effect voted a resounding “yes” in a de facto second referendum on Brexit and gave Boris Johnson a mandate to make his deal law and attempt to meet the latest Brexit deadline (January 31, 2020).
Far-reaching though the effects of this punctuation mark in the Brexit story will be, the 2019 general election may change the landscape of British politics and the fabric of its society in even more profound and decisive ways.
Brexit’s compromise over the status of Northern Ireland, half-in and half-out of Europe, is an unstable constitutional non-settlement that risks the fragile peace that’s held there since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, while accelerating the hopes of some for a United Ireland. But the future of the Union faces a still more pressing challenge from renewed calls for a referendum on independence for Scotland, where a large majority of voters favor continued membership in Europe. The specter of “the breakup of Britain” that has long haunted the United Kingdom may materialize at last—just at the moment when English nationalists are celebrating their Brexit victory.
So much for the political landscape; what of the social fabric? A fourth successive defeat for the Labour Party, with its most ambitious anti-austerity program yet, and an outright win for a Conservative Party that has purged its moderates have sharpened dividing lines, squeezed the liberal center, and broken consensus into polarity. A minority of Britons—roughly a third, who will now see themselves as effectively disenfranchised—voted for a radical expansion of the public sector, a great leap forward toward a socialist Britain. But the plurality chose a party that, while promising more spending, has actually recomposed itself around a reanimated Thatcherite vision of exclusionary, anti-egalitarian, moralizing social Darwinism. Some part of the Tory electoral coalition might have more welfare-chauvinist reflexes, but the greater part of it distrusts the state, resents the taxation that pays for it, and would like to shrink both.
What is at stake after this election, then—in a Britain that might soon mean, to all intents and purposes, England & Wales—is the future of what has made it a reasonably civilized country since 1945: social democracy. [Continue reading…]