Leave, Actually – What the Election Means
By Duncan Whitmore
“Tidings of Comfort of Joy” – so heralded the front page of The Daily Telegraph during their vision of Boris Johnson’s election victory descending from heaven with a chorus of angels. Certainly the magnitude of Johnson’s achievement is difficult to overstate. Not only has he propelled the Conservatives to an impressive parliamentary majority by robbing Labour of seats in its traditional working class heartlands; he has also, in a few short months, purged the Tories of their wrangling over Europe which has plagued each of their party leaders since Margaret Thatcher. For libertarians, however, while the result of last Thursday’s poll brings much comfort, the joy may have to be put on ice for a while.
There is comfort in the fact that, for the third election in a row – two general, one European – the British people have reaffirmed their 2016 decision to leave the European Union. No longer can dyed-in-the-wool Remainers claim that the electorate did not know what they were voting for, given that the precise form of Brexit was there for all to see in the text of Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. In the end, the possible split of the Leave vote between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party failed to materialise. Instead, as Nigel Farage intended, his party contributed to the fall of Labour in working class constituencies while the Tory vote remained intact. In some of the most surprising Tory victories – for example, in Durham Northwest, Blyth Valley, Bassetlaw, Bishop Auckland and Bolsover (where Dennis Skinner was unseated after nearly fifty years) – the spoils from Labour losses were parcelled out between the Brexit Party and the Tories, allowing the latter to accomplish anything between narrow and landslide victories over Labour. Although, according to Wednesday’s Times, some studies have claimed that the Brexit Party actually deprived the Conservatives of around twenty further seats, this is no bad thing. For in spite of gaining only 2% of the vote nationally and no seats, Farage’s combination of help and hindrance to the Tories has paid off by decimating the prospect of any parliamentary “Remainer” alliance while also neutering Conservative complacency. Of course, the precise unfolding of Brexit – i.e. the final form of Johnson’s withdrawal agreement and the eventual results of negotiations over the trade deal – remains to be seen. But the prospect of a second referendum leading to the outright cancellation of the decision to leave has finally been buried.
Vanquished too were a number of prominent Remainers, including all of the Tory rebels and defectors. So it’s goodbye to Anna Soubry (and with her the short lived Change UK), Chuka Umunna, Sam Gyimah, Dominic Grieve, Laura Pidcock, David Gauke, and Sarah Wollaston, among others. But the most satisfying slice delivered by this uncompromisingly brutal election was to the scalp of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. For while her specific loss came at the hands of the equally Remainiac SNP, this screeching banshee – who, in any case, has always been much too young for the high offices she has held – came to symbolise every grinding nugget of grit that the naval gazing establishment has thrown into the wheels of this country: the middle class elitism; the dismissive arrogance; the smug self-righteousness; the liberal wokeishness; the preaching narcissism. All of these Ms Swinson gave us in spades, omitting only, by virtue of her Scottish roots, their delivery in a plummy, Home Counties accent. Fortunately, though, it appears that karma does exist. Her campaign began with the proclamation that Boris Johnson was “not fit” to be Britain’s Prime Minister; alas, it ended when East Dunbartonshire declared her not fit to be its MP.
There is comfort also in the fact that the explicitly hard left economic policies of Labour’s manifesto will not see the light of day for the next five years – possibly longer, given that Labour’s recovery from such a deep defeat may take more than one electoral cycle. The reaction of the pound at the release of the exit poll was jubilant, rallying 2.2% against the dollar in a matter of minutes. Needless to say a Labour victory would have seen a plunge of similar magnitude, if not worse. While many of Labour’s specific policies were pie in the sky and the Tories are hardly an ideal model of state restraint, it is not hard to agree that the worst option has been avoided.
More nuanced is trying to determine which of the reasons for Labour’s failure – made all the more calamitous by the fact that they have already been out of power for nine years – was the more important. Was it the party’s stance on Brexit, its manifesto pledges, or did the personal unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn sway the vote? Most likely it was some combination of all three, and it would be a mistake to assume that they are mutually exclusive.
Certainly, when it comes to Brexit, it would not be surprising if the typical working class voter – whose only means of political expression is likely to be his vote – was to regard honouring the referendum result as more important than opting for more free goodies paid for by the public purse. After all, if a party cannot be trusted to deliver a previous democratic decision then why should it be trusted with anything else? Moreover, Boris Johnson seems to be keenly aware that the working class has merely “lent him” their votes for the purpose of “getting Brexit done”, and that this arrangement cannot be taken for granted.
However, it seems as though Jeremy Corbyn personally was deeply unpopular, more so than his party’s policies. This disdain for the Labour leader seemed to be evident also on the Remain side, as Gina Miller has claimed that she struggled to entice voter participation in her pro-Remain, tactical voting strategy on account of particular hostility towards Mr Corbyn. And in spite (or perhaps because) of the media’s flat-out attempt to destroy Boris Johnson’s character and integrity, Corbyn was clearly the weaker of the two during the campaign. For although Johnson is yet another posh, Etonian, Oxford graduate holding the keys to No. 10, he is ambitious, energetic and enthusiastic, while his lack of PC credentials and indifference to committing minor gaffes lends him a degree of Trump-esque authenticity. Mr Corbyn, in contrast, comes across as a dreary university lecturer pining for retirement at the fag end of an undistinguished career. Moreover, Johnson’s firm focus on the future – encapsulated cleanly and succinctly by the phrase “Get Brexit Done” – made Corbyn’s wrangling over his party’s Brexit policy appear indecisively muddled. All of this comes before we get into the accusations of Labour’s anti-semitism and Corbyn’s personal connections to foreign terrorist organisations, the latter of which probably shattered any confidence that, as Prime Minister, Corbyn could be trusted to prioritise Britain’s interests and security.
Does this mean, therefore, that a Labour Party sans Corbyn could run on a similar manifesto in the future in order to win back the working class? Not necessarily. In many ways, Labour’s policies were more appealing to the millennial, middle class, metrollectuals of the party and their celebrity supporters such as Lily Allen – who apparently cried upon the release of the manifesto. These are the type of people who label the working class as “vulnerable” and incapable instead of just less well off, and view the function of the state to shower them with pity in the form of aid and handouts. Actual working class people, on the other hand, want to better their lives for the long term, and probably have the good sense to realise that the state is not a bottomless pit of money that can shirk the necessity to live within its means. In other words, they want an interventionist state that will help fulfil their aspirations, not a nanny state that will weld their lips to the milk bottle. (In fact, Tony Blair – himself hardly blameless for Labour’s evolutionary path – warned of something similar when Ed Miliband faced the 2015 election, in which the latter’s defeat could be regarded as something of a warm up for Corbyn’s loss last week). Moreover, the working class are deaf to all of the lefty-liberal wokeishness emanating from London, whether it concerns multiculturalism, the number of genders, identity politics and probably climate change as well. And, of course, deriding provincial voters as stupid, racist and reactionary bigots beholden to the right wing tabloid press was hardly going to win hearts and minds. Whichever path the Labour Party chooses for itself in the future, it is unlikely to win back its traditional base of support without purging itself and its policies of their inherently snobbish and patronising undertone, along with those party members – such as Emily Thornberry – who have served to entrench it.
Turning now to the more difficult aspects of this election for libertarians, one is that the result demonstrates a lack of any seriously galvanised support for constitutional reform in this country – by which we mean the kind of reform that would help to permanently reduce the size and scope of the state. While it is true that Brexit has energised the electorate in ways that they were previously not, we have warned before that it would be premature to assume that this translates into a deep seated cry for radical change. Admittedly, there was no such option on the ballot paper that was available nationwide. The closest thing was the Brexit Party, and Nigel Farage – who, as usual, is one step ahead of everyone else – has spoken of his desire to provoke a fundamental “political revolution”. However, apart from the fact that his party is too young to have disseminated any wider, comprehensive vision in this regard, Farage seems to have understood that the majority of Leave voters want nothing more than their 2016 decision to be honoured, and are satisfied that Boris Johnson’s withdrawal proposals accomplish this objective. Thus, there would have been little to gain from confusing the message. (Indeed, it is not just “Remainer” parties that have been punished by the electorate – UKIP, too, was decimated in May’s European elections in spite of its firm Leave credentials, probably for “muddying the waters” with its anti-immigration and anti-Islam stance). Farage’s choice, therefore, to stand down candidates in Conservative-held seats was a prudent one. He has, however, announced that he will morph the Brexit Party into a “Reform Party” to fight a bigger battle in the future.
For the past three years, the problem from the voters’ point of view is more likely to have been the specific, Remain-biased membership of the House of Commons – most of which was in place before the result of the 2016 referendum – rather than the dysfunction of the system itself. Now that last week’s election has succeeded in booting most of these people out then voters may feel a sufficient degree of catharsis (and, of course, if honouring Brexit was the primary motivation for granting a Tory victory, then the underlying desire would have been to preserve and reinforce British democracy, not rewrite it). In fact, any proposed constitutional reform – as Boris Johnson has already suggested could be delivered to the House of Lords – may end up strengthening, rather than weakening the arm of the government. For the perverse aspect of the Brexit stalemate was that it was Parliament, rather than the government, that was the abusive body attempting to ride roughshod over the people. Indeed, if we had been dogged by any other issue – raising taxes, insane green policies, destroying civil liberties, etc. – we, as libertarians, would be cheering Parliament on for throwing spanners into the government machinery. Instead, however, the government is likely to take steps to ensure that Parliament, its speaker and the courts can never again be complicit in frustrating the government to the degree that they have been. Particularly when, in normal circumstances, the executive has already had practical control over Parliament anyway, this would not bode well for when the boot eventually does fall on the other foot – and it could be bad enough on the present foot. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act is already set for the chopping block (no great loss), but we can also expect, at the very least, some tightening of the government’s grip over parliamentary procedure, given the creative malleability to which it was subjected by former Speaker John Bercow. All of this the people may well view as a much needed re-balancing rather than a dangerous consolidation of power.
There are, however, one or two nuggets of longer term hope. The first is that, although the Tories have long since ceased to be a “conservative” party and have adopted many of the leftist traits, if they seriously intend to repay the endorsement lent to them by the working class then they may start to pull back on some of their own wokeish claptrap. A big turnaround in this regard would be to reverse the onset of the green cancer that is climate change alarmism, a task from which even Nigel Farage seems to have shied away. For whether it hits directly in the form of higher energy bills or indirectly in the form of reduced investment in industry, any serious attempt to “de-carbonise” the economy will hit the working class hardest. Fortunately, the Tories may have little objection from their own membership if they were to quietly roll back their climate change commitments. At its conference back in September, the party’s Uncle Fester, Chancellor Sajid Javid, announced with pride its commitment to a 2050 “carbon neutral” deadline and the doubling of funding for global environmental and climate change programmes. Pausing for an expected applause, the audience, instead, caught him on the back foot with a stone cold silence.
Another aspect to keep an eye on is the apparent resurgence of nationalism in Scotland (apparent because the victories of the SNP were probably anti-Tory/anti-Labour protests rather than positive endorsements of independence, and were, in any case, inflated by the first-past-the-post system). Moreover, in Northern Ireland, the DUP – having also lost its influence in Westminster as a result of the Tory victory – is now smaller than the combined victories of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, but with the biggest gain in vote share going to the neutral Alliance Party. This situation has already led to fresh talks to restore the devolved, Stormont government.
Libertarians should not – as almost everyone else seems to – worry about the “break up” of the United Kingdom, and especially not about the decentralisation of political decision making. Self-determination is, after all, our mantle, and there is nothing sacrosanct about the existing demarcation of state borders. In fact, it is highly unlikely that a serious resurgence of liberty in this country will be possible without wresting power away from its concentration in Westminster, the degree of which has given us one of the most ridiculously centralised political systems in the developed world. Indeed, such centralisation is probably the reason why politics in this country is so inward looking. With Westminster being the hub of everything then the political class can stay safely locked away within the M25, peering out once every four or five years for renewed approval.
So if, post-Brexit and the touted EU “trade deal”, Scotland wants to rethink its 2014 decision on independence, it should be allowed to do so. This is in spite of the SNP’s schizophrenic brand of nationalism which wants to leave one union in order to be swallowed by an even bigger one. Most likely, however, the Scottish will view their membership of the UK as more important than being in the EU. Although Brexit is certainly a material enough change to warrant another referendum, it is not the case that Scotland’s preference for Remain serves as a neat proxy for independence.
More interesting, however, may be the result of any Tory failure to capitalise on its newly found working class support, together with Labour simultaneously deciding to remain a party for middle class, urban liberals. In other words, what would happen if the provincial working class finally felt they had nowhere to go and they really did feel that the system itself was failing them? Could we start to see more serious cries for institutional reform? If so then how about, say, a form of devolution for the North of England, with Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester serving as a Northern capital? By this, we mean a proper form of devolution with clear demarcations of jurisdiction and revenue raising authority, rather than the botched forms that Blair saddled on Scotland and Wales. More comprehensively, why shouldn’t all of the regions have more control over, say, healthcare, education, policing, housing, planning, and social policy, tailoring these things to local needs and raising the required revenue locally rather than having to take their cue and cash from Westminster?
If these kinds of reforms were to become a reality then libertarians may one day look back on this election with joy, rather than with the mere comfort in having dodged the Corbyn bullet.