Letter from England 1: Setting the Scene
I have been asked to write a weekly column on British politics. Since I am writing for a largely American readership, and since Americans mostly know little of what happens outside their own country, and since American politics are presently in themselves of consuming interest, I think it would be best if I were to begin with a brief overview not only of what is happening here, but also of what has been happening.
David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 at the head of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Conservatives had won more seats than any other party in the House of Commons, but fallen short of an overall majority. Whether he governed the country well during the next five years is beside the point. What matters is that he governed effectively within the assumptions of British politics.
He went into the 2015 General Election with the aim of getting an overall majority for the Conservative Party. His main difficulty was not in beating the Labour Party, which was in no position to beat him, but in making sure that millions of disaffected conservatives would vote Conservative and not for the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Britain had joined the European Economic Community in 1973. This was a controversial change of national strategy, and it had split the Conservative Party. Membership raised fundamental issues of sovereignty and of economic policy. Without ever going away, this split had been of little practical importance between 1979 and 1990, while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister between. Once she was gone, it had re-emerged with growing force, to cripple the government of her successor, John Major. It had contributed to the great electoral victory in 1997 of Tony Blair, and it had contributed to Conservative political and electoral weakness thereafter. In particular, the emergence of UKIP, which was committed to withdrawal from what was now renamed the European Union, had drawn away millions of voters who would otherwise have supported the Conservatives.
Mr Cameron’s strategy in 2015 was to neutralise UKIP without giving too much offence to the Establishment consensus in favour of our continued membership. He therefore promised that, if the Conservatives won the election, he would hold a referendum on our membership of the European Union. UKIP still did well in the election, but not well enough to stop the Conservatives from winning a small overall majority in the House of Commons. Mr Cameron was now the first Conservative leader since 1992 to have won an overall majority.
Better still, the leader of the defeated Labour Party promptly resigned. Under the rather democratic rules of that party, the new leader elected was Jeremy Corbyn, an elderly socialist who seemed to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing since the economic difficulties of the 1970s. He had opposed all Tony Blair’s wars, and had reasonably verifiable connections with the Irish Republican Army and various anti-Israel terrorist organisations. He was even on friendly terms with at least one Holocaust revisionist. The Labour Party immediately fell into turmoil, and Mr Corbyn had trouble finding Labour Members of Parliament to serve in his shadow cabinet – that is, spokesmen who would face each Government Minister in the Commons, and hope to replace them after the next election.
By early 2016, the economy was doing well as these things were judged. The Labour Party was tearing itself apart. Mr Cameron appeared to have a total dominance in British politics. He therefore decided to call the referendum he had promised., and he recommended a vote to remain.
There seemed little doubt that he would win. Euroscepticism had never been a united movement. Its growing success had rested on an unwillingness to discuss certain questions in public. Should we leave by simple repeal of the European Communities Act 1972? Or should we negotiate withdrawal under Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty? If the latter, should we withdraw completely? Or should we remain in the European Economic Area, which would allow us continued free access to the Single European Market while outside the political structures of the European Union? If the former, should be adopt policies of low taxes and light regulation, and of free trade? Or should we become very socialist behind high protectionist barriers?
Mr Cameron went into the referendum campaign assuming that the Leave side would immediately fall apart, and that the public, however sceptical it might be in the abstract, would support the established order of things.
However, while the Leave campaign was generally a shambles, the people voted 52-48 per cent to leave. Though slender, this majority to leave was a shock to nearly everyone. Moreover, though slender in the aggregate, it made leaving a political necessity. If we take away the Scottish and ethnic minority votes, around two thirds of the native English had voted to leave – and this majority was much the same in Labour and in Conservative areas of England.
His authority in tatters, Mr Cameron resigned. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May. She had campaigned to remain in the European Union, but now put herself at the head of the more radical Leavers. For her first ten months in office, she seemed to be the strongest Prime Minister since Tony Blair. The Labour Party was drifting into chaos. It had campaigned to stay in the European Union, and Mr Corbyn’s own dislike of the European Union had made sure that its campaign was half-hearted. Mr Corbyn was now rejected as leader by the Parliamentary Labour Party. His re-election by the party members gave the Labour Party a leader with no parliamentary authority. And Mrs May had finally healed the Conservative split over membership of the European Union.
External events were also on her side. The European Union was in disarray. There were elections scheduled in many of the other member states, in which Eurosceptic parties were expected to do well. The German Government was in trouble because of Angela Markel’s decision to let in millions of “asylum seekers.” The election of Donald Trump meant that pressure from Washington for Britain to stay in the European Union would be weakened.
Even so, problems were emerging. There was still no general agreement on how to leave the European Union. The Ministers assured everyone they had a plan, but declined to say what it was. Stories emerged of heated rows within the Government. Once or twice a week, it was confirmed that we were leaving, but formal notice of leaving was not served under Article 50.
Then the courts were dragged into the debate. Because no one had expected the referendum to end as it did, its enabling act was vaguely-drawn. In the event of a vote to leave, it neither authorised nor required the Ministers to serve notice under Article 50.
Now, under our unwritten but binding Constitution, treaty-making is a matter for the Royal Prerogative. Treaties are made or broken by Ministers, and given effect simply by the Queen’s signature. Parliament is involved only when the terms of a treaty require some change of domestic law. Then an Act of Parliament is needed. Our membership of the European Union began when the Queen was “advised” by “her” Ministers to sign the Treaty of Rome. But effective membership began when the European Communities Act was passed to give domestic effect to the terms of the Treaty. During the next forty years, numerous rights and obligations were created for British citizens by virtue of this Act. Therefore, leaving the European Union would have a significant if unknown impact on domestic law. Because the enabling act had created no right or obligation for the Ministers to withdraw from the Treaty of Rome, a separate Act of Parliament was surely needed.
The courts finally decided that a separate Act was needed. This brought us to February of 2017. The Act was passed. In March 2017, the Government finally served formal notice under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and the withdrawal process began.
By now, Mrs May decided that she needed a fresh and unambiguous mandate. The 2015 Parliament was due to expire in 2020, by when the withdrawal process might still not be completed. A new Parliament would run until 2022. Since the Labour Party was still eating itself, she could expect a crushing majority that would allow her to state her terms – whatever they might be – to the European Union, and to expect to get most of what she wanted. And so, in April 2017, she called a General Election for the first Thursday in June.
If the referendum was a shock, what happened next was comparable to watching an athlete, at the peak of his fitness, fall dead of a heart attack while sitting down. For ten months, we had been told by the media that Theresa May was a political titan. The election campaign revealed her to the people as a shuffling robot. We had two months of watching her open and shut her mouth whenever faced with an unexpected question or event. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, ran a campaign of old-fashioned brilliance. He went about the country, smiling and meeting the people. When the election started, his own parliamentary colleagues were openly plotting to dump him after its catastrophic outcome. By the time it ended, he was making self-assured speeches to vast open-air meetings of rapturous supporters.
The Conservatives failed to win. They got many more seats than Labour. But Labour did not collapse, and the Conservatives fell short of an overall majority. There is still a Conservative Government. It has the support of one of the Ulster parties. But the Prime Minister is a broken woman. She remains in office because no one feels brave enough to step into the mess she has made of things.
The most immediately pressing matter in British politics is our withdrawal from the European Union. Now that formal notice has been served, we shall leave automatically in March 2019. There is much doubt that the time available will be enough to secure a smooth exit. If we leave without an agreement, we shall find ourselves outside the Single Market, and therefore subject to various tariff and non-tariff barriers. In the long term, given moderately light taxes and regulations, we should flourish. In the short term, our economy is so rigid and so corporatised that leaving the Single Market will throw us into several years of chaos.
Had she not called the election, or had she won it by a convincing margin, I repeat that Mrs May would have been able to make demands and to expect a reasonable compromise. The heads of the European Union have now smelled blood, and are in no mood for compromise. The continental elections have been held, and the Eurosceptic surge there was contained. The German elections are yet to come. But Angela Merkel is expected to win again. It may be that the Government will pull itself together and play a very hard game. Because he is also committed to withdrawal, it may be that the Government can rely on strong moral support from Jeremy Corbyn, and so be able to negotiate as representatives of a non-partisan British consensus.
But no one knows what will happen next. Unlike the Americans, my own people take some interest in what is happening across the Atlantic. Since the June election, we have given up following the turns of the Trump Administration. For the first time in living memory, our own ghastly affairs claim the whole of our attention.
Why has this happened? How is it that, if there were an election next Thursday, it would most likely be won by a party led by someone hated by his own colleagues, and with more than a soft spot for Irish and Palestinian terrorists?
One answer is the personalities. In 2015, the Labour Party had a leader who was both Jewish and a plasticised vote-hunter. The ethnic minorities, a large part of the Labour core vote, are not noted for their philo-semitism. On the other hand, David Cameron was a jolly member of the old ruling class. This time, Theresa May was awful, and Jeremy Corbyn was not. He is an honest man who has spent his long career in politics arguing as persuasively as he can for what he believes. I may not like all that he believes. But I do respect honesty. So, it seems, did many other people last month.
A deeper answer is that both the British and the American systems of government are suffering crises of legitimacy. At the end of the 1970s, we were promised a new world of opportunity. The State would end the welfarist consensus that emerged after the Second World War. It would become more modest in its demands, and stand aside while we did more to look after ourselves. That was the promise made by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and not altered by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. What was actually delivered can be summarised as high-tax and corporatist cultural Marxism at home and wars of atrocity abroad. Our countries have been flooded with immigrants. Real wages have steadily fallen. Looking through the veil of statistics, unemployment is a lurking danger in most households. Increasing numbers of our people cannot afford to buy property or to have children. The only beneficiaries have been a new elite of the well-connected and a few of their client groups.
I doubt if many of the English who voted to leave the European Union cared about the details of our membership. Instead, they saw that continued membership was urged by our overlords, and they used the referendum as a vote of no-confidence in a general order of things that looked fatal to themselves and their children. Come the election, they voted in large numbers against a gang of neo-con corporatists. Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism was simply a promise of no more of these inexplicable and unwinnable foreign wars, and a promise that the taxes we already paid would be spent on ordinary people. Bearing in mind the Conservative record since 2010, he was not offering more immigration or more political correctness. He was, and may next time be, our equivalent of Donald Trump. America has a long tradition of right-wing populism. Britain has no right worth mentioning.
So here is my brief overview of events in Britain. If you want to know more, please watch this space. I look forward to filling it. But I really have no idea what will happen next.