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Brexit Endgame: The 2019 UK Election


After nearly four years of wailing and gnashing of teeth, Britain has made up its mind. We’re leaving the EU. At 22.00 on Wednesday 12th December 2019, the BBC/Sky/ITV exit poll opened the final chapter in Britain’s Brexit saga. A crushing majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservative and Unionist Party has redrawn the political map. Constituencies which have been Labour for decades have turned Conservative. The Brexit Party failed to gain a single seat but upset the voting balance. In my home city of Sunderland, had the Brexit Party not stood then a constituency which has been Labour since the First World War would have turned Tory. The Liberal Democrats not only failed to rally the remains of Remain, they actually lost a seat – awkwardly, the seat of their leader Jo Swinson. Following John Bercow to the House of Commons exit are high-profile Remainers Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna, and Dennis Skinner – who lost his Labour constituency of 49 years to a Tory. Despite climate concerns being a big campaign issue the Greens have failed to achieve anything resembling a breakthrough. Meanwhile in Scotland, a huge surge for the SNP means that 2020 will be dominated by an existential struggle not over the future of Britain in the European Union, but the future of the 350-year old British union itself. British politics used to be boring. Not any more.

The immediate question is, “why?” There isn’t a single answer, and at the headquarters of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and even the Conservatives, heated debates on this question are now taking place. But one answer is that this wasn’t so much a vote of confidence in Boris Johnson, it was a vote of no confidence against Jeremy Corbyn.

The signs have long been there. In 2015 Corbyn faced a vote of no confidence by his own party, and lost. His response was to do nothing. In 2017 Corbyn entered a general election, and lost to the robotic Theresa May. His response was to do nothing. In 2019 Corbyn faced a national vote in the European elections, and lost (even losing his own constituency’s seat in the European Parliament, and on his birthday as well). He responded by doing nothing. Two by-elections showed a collapse of support for the Labour Party, and his response was to do nothing. Now, Jeremy Corbyn has led the Labour Party to its worst defeat since 1935. His response, for now, is to do nothing. Not even resign. This, coupled with Brexit, explains last night’s election result.

Much has been said about the December 2019 election being a Brexit election. And undeniably, Brexit was a major factor. But despite a great deal of discussion and tentative polls about Remainers now having a bigger majority than Leavers (and the former head of YouGov’s disturbing rhetoric in January 2019 about “Crossover Day”, whereupon enough Leave voters had died that a second referendum should be held to return a Remain result), there was not a surge in support for Remain options. The answer to this is Brexhaustion and the clarity (or lack thereof) of party leaders’ positions on the biggest peacetime political issue the British have faced since the stirrings of revolution in 1832.

Under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives advocated an “Oven-Ready Brexit”; not so much a gourmet a la carte Brexit option but a lukewarm, reheated version of what Theresa May had offered four times before. This was not a Remain option, but neither was it a crash-out Hard Brexit option. Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats evolved from calling for a second referendum to simply offering to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. Nigel Farage’s position of immediately leaving the EU under WTO rules was, at best, vaguely phrased. Jeremy Corbyn’s position has long confused people, until entering the election campaign with a promise of negotiating a magical, perfect deal with an irritated and impatient European Union in record time, holding a Leave/Remain second referendum, but not actually taking a side himself and leaving open the bizarre possibility of him negotiating a deal and then campaigning against his own deal. Anna Soubry’s Independent Group for Change, which was stillborn to begin with, has become as politically relevant as UKIP or the novelty candidates Lord Buckethead, Count Binface, or Mr Fish Finger. Nigel Farage, now turning into the British equivalent of one of the USA’s “perennial candidates” who won’t go away, became an irrelevance as Boris took the limelight as the lead figure for Leave, gifting the Brexit Party a net total of zero seats in Parliament despite their success in the European Parliament earlier this year.

Forced to choose between the Conservative, LibDem, Brexit Party, and Labour options (the SNP’s proposal being irrelevant for most British voters incapable of voting SNP), Johnson’s seems to have been the least unpleasant option on the menu. Swinson’s proposal to ignore more than half of the electorate and cancel the whole process has failed spectacularly, reflecting widespread concern in Britain over the last few months that this Liberal Democrat proposal was neither liberal, nor democratic. The Lib Dems failed to rally the remains of Remain, possibly because the British people are simply exhausted by Brexit and want it to end – one way or the other. And Corbyn’s plan to be an “honest broker” favouring neither Remain nor Leave has backfired worse than anyone anticipated.

The nation has been glued to opinion polls throughout the campaign, anxiously and excitedly watching as the Lib Dem and Brexit Party vote share collapsed, while the Conservatives and Labour raced upwards. But hopes or fears of Corbyn achieving the same as in 2017 – of eating into the Conservative majority just enough to cause a hung parliament – failed to materialise. 2019 is not 2017. The Conservatives are no longer led by a reluctant Remainer and mediocre politician, but by an admittedly charismatic leader and enthusiastic Leaver. The Brexit Party became irrelevant once their far bigger rival came under Leave leadership. The Lib Dems’ policy was clearly unpopular with many Remainers uncomfortable at the idea of just cancelling the biggest democratic decision in British history, regardless of their own views. But while the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Brexit Party all clearly stated their Brexit positions and evolved them, Labour did not. The Brexit option offered by Jeremy Corbyn remained more or less the same as his position during the 2016 EU Membership Referendum campaign itself – vague and unclear to everyone.

Labour’s mistake was to frame the December 2019 election around domestic issues. Twelve years after the Global Financial Crisis and ten years after the start of state austerity, Britain is in a shockingly poor condition. Unemployment, growing child poverty, the spread of zero-hours contracts, public services from hospitals to bus routes to police stations being financially eviscerated, intense housing pressure, skyrocketing levels of personal debt – all of these are real, and urgent, and Labour was right to draw attention to them. But Labour was wrong to believe that these were more important to the British people than Brexit.

For the last three (now, nearly four) years, Brexit has colonised British consciousness to the point of complete saturation. Since the beginning of David Cameron’s referendum campaign in 2016, “Brexit” has been a word which the British people have been unable to avoid on a daily basis. Love them or loathe them, Swinson, Farage, Johnson, and Sturgeon at least had a clear position on an issue which has not simply dominated British politics, but has been the entirety of British politics, since 2016. Corbyn’s attempt to focus on domestic issues while treating Brexit as a footnote, was misguided. He wasn’t helped by the poisonous atmosphere of British politics and the polarisation of the British population into warring camps who see the other as not merely different, but evil. He wasn’t helped by his unclear promises on a second Scottish independence referendum, nor by his commitment to scrapping Britain’s nuclear deterrent, nor by his past associations with groups whose commitment to peace and cooperation is, to say the least, highly questionable. He wasn’t helped by a manifesto which promised too much and which was offered by a man whose complete inability to deal with the foul anti-Semitism scandal in Labour gave a widespread impression that if Corbyn can’t manage his own party, he can’t manage an entire country. And he certainly wasn’t helped by a broad perception that the Labour Party (even before he took control) has come to represent the London middle class, rather than the British working class. But as 2017 demonstrated, Corbyn at least had the ability to muddle through these issues, and in the 2019 campaign his past associations with terrorist groups, or his position on Trident nuclear submarines, was barely mentioned compared to 2017. What felled him in December 2019 was a public lack of trust in him and his Brexit position, and a public desperation for Brexit to end, one way or the other.

Britain is now approaching the Brexit endgame. Corbyn will linger on for a while longer, until he steps down in favour of another radical socialist who will lead a remnant of the Labour Party in opposition against a huge Conservative government more preoccupied with the SNP than the Labour MPs sitting across from them. The leaderless Liberal Democrats will wander in the wilderness until reforming as a party dedicated to rejoining the European Union. Nigel Farage will follow Tony Blair into the lucrative job of an after-dinner speaker. In the meantime, Boris Johnson will deliver Brexit. But potentially, a Brexit which is not as harsh as many Remainers feared.

With such a huge majority, and with his rivals and opponents trounced, Boris is not in the same position as Theresa May – trapped by hardline Eurosceptics in the ERG and held to ransom by Arlene Foster’s DUP. 2020 will be dominated by a race against the clock to negotiate a trade deal with Brussels, and the looming war of words between a significantly strengthened case for Scottish independence versus a significantly strengthened case for One Nation Conservatism. But Boris can now comfortably ignore demands for a Hard Brexit and deliver a softer version which will disappoint everyone. But perhaps everyone being disappointed is preferable to half the country being furious. In his speech on the morning of Friday 13th December, Boris acknowledged that much of his vote, like the 2016 Brexit vote, came from the vast and mysterious land beyond London, called “Britain”, whose people are tired of being ignored, tired of being left behind, and eager for remedies to a broken economy and a broken political system. Brexit is coming, and nothing can stop it now. But maybe, just maybe, a majority government aware of the need to placate four angry nations, and aware of the need to strike a good deal with the EU to prevent the further polarisation of the country after January 31st 2020, can do what the British do best, and half-heartedly muddle through.





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An ‘Expert’ Perspective on Brexit… Means Brexit


I have a confession to make: in the more than two years that we are now running this blog, Russell and I have actually never met in person! Russell has links with the Netherlands; and, even worse, I was in London twice during the last 5 months alone. But the closest that we came to meeting was during a recent episode of TRT World’s ‘Roundtable’ on Brexit, in which we both appeared – but in my case only via Skype. While Russell and I clearly need to work on our relationship, both of us appearing in the same programme also made me think about the role of experts in contemporary society. According to the Oxford online dictionary an expert is “A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.” Experts have gained an important role in society. They, for instance, are a key source of information for EU institutions and other administrative and political bodies. And although Michael Gove (in)famously claimed that people “have had enough of experts”, those same experts are continuously asked to comment on contemporary developments – both Russell and I have regularly been asked to comment on Brexit in media at local, regional, national and international level.

Discussing the same topic during the same television programme creates an acute sense of awareness of your role as an expert. People expect us to say and write knowledgeable stuff, but maybe when it comes to Brexit we are also slowly running out of ammunition. Brexit is, of course, an unprecedented development. States and territories have left the EU and its predecessors before, or have left member-states and thus became non-members by default (Algeria became independent from France in 1962; Greenland, in 1985, and Saint Barthélemy, in 2012, withdrew to become so-called overseas countries and territories of the EU). And, let’s not forget, other countries decided to refrain from membership or withdrew their applications, such as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Yet, his is the first time ever that a prominent member state is leaving the EU. Perhaps Brexit is not that much of a surprise given that Britain has always been an ‘awkward partner’, but it is difficult to predict what Brexit really means. Brexit means Brexit, right?

But what will Brexit actually look like and what will be its consequences? Even we ‘experts’ don’t know anymore. Consider the many options that are now on the table, some which many people had not expected at all. There’s the EU-UK deal with the (in)famous ‘backstop’, which currently doesn’t receive enough support from either parliament nor the people on the street. Theresa May’s Plan B seems to be Plan A turned on its back, with the EU not willing to budge. And then there’s the no-deal Brexit scenario, which all but a few hard Brexiteers – those are among the Brexiteers with a “special place in hell” – seem to want to avoid. Even a no-Brexit scenario, although not very likely, is not completely of the table, certainly since calls for a second referendum or a general election are still out there.

And then there’s the post-Brexit world. Even in a scenario where the EU and the UK agree to a deal after all, this is only the first step in setting up their future relationship. What will that relationship look like? And will the EU27 remain as unified as they currently are when having to negotiate a trade deal with the UK? We are charting new territory here. Experts answering these questions should perhaps say that we do not always know either. Mind you, I am not bored of Brexit and can surely speculate about it based on what I do know. But we should also not be afraid to admit that we don’t know everything.





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Brexit Never Rains, But It Pours


Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been defeated in the House of Commons again. This time, by only 58 votes. Compared to the crushing defeats of 230 votes on January 15th, and 149 votes on March 12th, a mere 58 is not too bad. Perhaps even an improvement. But a defeat is a defeat, and defeats are even more devastating for a minority government which has repeatedly, and consistently, shown that it does not command the support of the House. The only thing keeping Theresa May in power is a widespread dislike of her Conservative rivals – the backstabbing Michael Gove and the incompetent Boris Johnson – and a national contempt for Jeremy Corbyn, whose Brexit flipflopping and appalling mismanagement of the antisemitism crisis leaves the Leader of her Majesty’s Opposition even less popular than the most reviled government since the Duke of Wellington’s ultra-Tories in 1832. But with the third defeat of the Government’s Brexit bill in as many months, a general election is all but inevitable.

Mrs May, and the country she ostensibly leads, faces some deeply unpleasant choices. She could of course bring the bill back for a fourth vote, hoping that the pattern of increasing support will eventually spill over into the narrowest of victories. This is unlikely but not impossible. Before March 2019, no British government had brought the same bill to vote thrice, after two defeats, since Lord North’s administration during the American War of Independence. If Mrs May brings her vote back for a fourth vote, it will likely be the first time that a British government has pursued the same policy four times since the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the late 1600s – early 1700s. And like America, the Dutch wars didn’t work out too well for the British. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

An equally fringe possibility is that Mrs May resigns, and hands over the reins to Michael Gove or Boris Johnson. But given the contempt in which both are widely held, and given the fact that Theresa may has repeatedly refused to step down until Brexit is resolved, one way or another, this is unlikely.

A second referendum remains a possibility, despite the agonising arguments over how many options will be on the ballot paper, whether holding a second referendum is in-keeping with the spirit of democracy, and whether a second referendum sets a precedent for a third. Or a fourth. But given that a referendum will take a year to arrange, this possibility is long-term.

A third option is that Mrs May simply revokes Article 50, which the European Court of Justice has confirmed is entirely legal. She could easily cite the recent London march and the five million signatures calling for revocation, tell Brussels she’s withdrawing it, then scuttle away into retirement like David Cameron and leave someone else to clean up the mess. But this is not in her character, and unilaterally cancelling Brexit without a popular vote would pave the way for the extreme right to march into Downing Street. The British population’s faith in democracy is at rock-bottom, and cancelling the most democratic vote in British history would not do much to remedy mass contempt for the House of Commons, the British state, and democracy itself. And while cancelling Article 50 might be met with sighs of relief in Europe, millions of eurosceptic voters, who are possibly soon to be given a boost by a coming recession, would seize upon it as proof of their belief that the EU is at best uncaring, at worst a totalitarian bully.

This leaves the most likely option – a general election. After the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the general election of 2015, Brexit in 2016, another general election in 2017, and endless votes in parliament which have completely taken over the day-to-day business of the British state, the population is exhausted by elections. And there is very little evidence to suggest that an election would resolve anything. Corbyn, whose popularity is plunging once more, is haemorrhaging voters who are tired of his inability to formulate any sort of Brexit plan besides meaningless claims that a veteran Eurosceptic who cannot even manage his own party, can magically negotiate a perfect exit deal. The Conservatives, now in their ninth year of government and suffering from the political entropy which any long-term government endures, would be led into battle by a candidate who would admittedly be more charismatic than May, but who would command little respect. With the Liberal Democrats relegated once more to the fringes and being elbowed out of the centre by the newly-named Change UK Party, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party snapping at the Tories’ heels, and the Scottish Nationalists openly invoking the spectre of IndyRef2, the coming general election will be a chaotic, poorly-planned mess in which all factions will lose, returning another hung parliament or minority government forced to either try and resuscitate May’s deal, or go begging for a new one from an EU which has far bigger problems on the horizon than the British. And given the febrile atmosphere of toxicity, poison, exhaustion, and disillusionment which now characterises British politics, the coming 2019 General Election will be the nastiest to date.

For three years the British have squabbled, screamed, and denounced neighbours and loved ones as traitors or heretics. For three years, British government has been at a standstill while the EU has grown more and more weary, frustrated, and fractious. So, after three exhausting and poisonous years we are not approaching the end – we have barely finished the beginning.





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What Happens to Brexit Now?


In May 1832, a political and ideological struggle between Reformers and Reactionaries brought Britain the closest it has been to revolution. In the “Days of May” of 1832, Britain abandoned its stagnant, century-old politics that had barely changed since the Acts of Union in 1707, and entered a new phase in which politics became formalised. The old ways were gone, and a painful transition dragged the British into a new era. Something similar is happening now. For the last three years it has been impossible to go an entire day Great Britain without saying, reading, or hearing, the word “Brexit”. It’s unlikely that the next three years will be any different. Earlier this year the cumulative fatigue led to Brexhaustion, a national and parliamentary paralysis, as Leavers and Remainers were united in how tired they are of the whole process and how Brexit seems to be a state of permanent impermanence, a limbo in which we can’t go forward, can’t go back, and just exist in a political no-man’s-land. But now the country has a second wind, and both sides are bringing up debates old and new, in response to two major plot changes. The Days of May are back.

After nearly three years as the Prime Minister who said she would not resign until Brexit has been delivered, Theresa May has resigned without Brexit being delivered. This was motivated by multiple reasons. In a desperate attempt to bring her Withdrawal Agreement before the House of Commons a fourth time (the first time in British history that a government has brought a failed bill to vote, four times), May offered MPs the option of voting on a second referendum – if they passed her bill. She promised that if they voted for her on a fourth vote, they could maybe vote on whether to have a second vote. Unsurprisingly, this destroyed the last shreds of her credibility. To make things much worse for Mrs May, polls for the European Parliament elections showed a total collapse of public support for the Conservative Party. Although results were not released until the 26th May, the British vote on 23rd May was enough to force Mrs May to resign on the 24th, pushed by her terrified colleagues in the remnants of the world’s oldest political party. This has opened a new phase in the Brexit process.

Choosing the next Prime Minister will be a small, elite affair. Candidates will be whittled down to two in votes by the shrinking Conservative Party membership and MPs, until a successor is chosen. Out of the many candidates, a front runner is obvious. Boris Johnson is deeply unpopular with his fellow Conservative MPs, but a panicking party may well back him as the only candidate with the charisma to fend off Nigel Farage. And as a hard Leaver, this would work in Boris’ favour. He will be able to claw back supporters by arguing that while Farage is a single-issue politician, the Conservatives can deliver hard Brexit alongside a portfolio of other policies. This would reflect the splitting of British society back into two camps – Leave and Remain. Soft Brexit is dead, and the country is now back to the binary choice offered in 2016. To try and rescue the party in the aftermath of its worst defeat since 1834, the Conservatives will likely back Boris and hard Brexit.

The Conservatives are not the only ones facing extinction. Labour performed slightly better than the Tories, but still achieved a pathetic result – particularly pathetic against a government which has been incumbent for nine years, and whose leaders have spent the last three years fighting a vicious civil war. Still dogged by the anti-Semitism scandal, Labour are now also fighting a vicious civil war. Before the elections Jeremy Corbyn, frightened of alienating Leave voters in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands and alienating Remain voters in London and the big cities, chose to sit on the fence and not to mention Brexit. Proclaiming, bizarrely, that Brexit was not an issue for British voters in the 2019 European elections, he failed to put forward anything that even vaguely resembled a coherent position. Where Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens, clearly backed either Leave or Remain, Corbyn was exceedingly vague. His position was to not have a position, effectively telling potential supporters that Labour neither supported Leave nor Remain, but wanted a general election, but if one didn’t happen then Labour might or might not support the idea of a second referendum. This vague, confusing, and deeply dissatisfying non-position has resulted in Labour’s support plummeting as badly as the Conservatives’, with labour being abandoned by its working-class heartlands and its middle-class Remainer strongholds. The first result announced on the 26th, Sunderland, showed a massive majority for the Brexit Party – in a constituency that Labour have held unchallenged for a hundred years. In his own north London constituency of Islington, Corbyn lost to the Liberal Democrats – and on his birthday, too. Like the Conservatives, Labour is collapsing as Leavers flock to Nigel Farage and Remainers switch to the Liberal Democrats or Greens. The two main parties which, between them, have controlled British politics since the First World War, are facing extinction. But where the Conservatives are aware of the scale of the disaster, to the point of throwing out their Prime Minister and publicly acknowledging the party’s crisis, Corbyn refuses to believe that anything is wrong.

The victors of the European Parliament elections, in Britain at least, are surprising. The LibDems and Greens have made impressive gains (even if the Remain vote is split between them). But by far the most surprising result is Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. British politics and the first-past-the-post system are punishingly cruel to small and newcomer parties, as Change UK have discovered. Farage himself realised this in the 2015 General Election, when four million UKIP votes translated into just one seat at Westminster. But the Brexit Party is not UKIP. Formed only six weeks ago, the newborn party has not only survived, it has crushed the ancient titans of Labour and the Conservatives. Nothing better illustrates the new face of British politics than the successes of the Brexit Party and the LibDems – old allegiances are dead, party policies on anything but Brexit are irrelevant, and the country is split into two completely opposed halves, each of which wants something that the other considers an abomination. The British people have known this for three years. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May had acknowledged this, the EP results might have been different.

What does this mean for Brexit? Clearly, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement has failed. The two options left are the two extremes of Hard Brexit or No Brexit. To try and snuff out Nigel Farage a second time, the Conservatives will almost certainly place Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street, and he will push for a No Deal exit on October 31st. Labour will continue to vacillate, with Jeremy Corbyn continuing his daily ritual of demanding a general election. And with the new European Parliament facing deadlock and the exhausting task of building coalitions, Europe will be in no mood for more nonsense from the British. A further extension of Article 50 is out of the question. A second referendum in Britain would take far too long. And while a general election might be tempting to Boris Johnson as a way of wiping out an exhausted and abandoned Labour Party, his own Conservative Party is too weak to risk it. The net result of the new “Days of May” is that No-Deal Brexit is all but assured. And with the traditionally dominant parties of the European Parliament having lost their majorities to similar nationalist and Green surges, neither the UK nor the EU will be particularly able to manage Brexit.

For Remainers, there is at least one glimmer of hope. When Britain crashes out, 29 Brexit Party MEPs will exit the European Parliament. And diminish the influence of the eurosceptic right. But this will still leave a European Parliament scrambling to form and keep coalitions together; coalitions which may find it much more difficult to deal with the fallout from Britain’s looming exit.





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The Conservative Party Leadership Race


The 2018 dystopian videogame We Happy Few takes place in an alternate version of Britain in 1964. A sparsely-detailed plot suggests that twenty years after the Nazi conquest of Britain, the Soviet counter-conquest of Europe, and the collapse of the Empire, 1960s Britain has become a desolate, hopeless land. Consequently the game’s setting, the fictional island town of Wellington Wells, has completely isolated itself not only from the wider world but even the remains of the United Kingdom. To cope with dark memories and the bleak desolation of their collapsing dystopia, the citizens of Wellington Wells have psychologically retreated into a land of make-believe. In a collapsing realm with no agriculture, no industry, a media which broadcasts recycled lies and fanciful nostalgia, Wellington Wells’ complete isolation from reality is maintained through constant xenophobia towards every nation (including all other Britons not of wealthy, Southern, English descent); and heavily redacted, over-the-top patriotic versions of history in which Britain is not the destitute and forgotten land it has become but that England always was, England still is, and England always will be, the supreme nation on Earth. This delusion, though, is not found only in the fictional Britain of We Happy Few.

After three years of Brexhaustion, the political deadlock is about to be broken. At least in name, if not practice. Following Theresa May’s repeated failure to pass the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament and her subsequent resignation, the future of Brexit now rests with approximately 160,000 fee-paying members of the Conservative Party who are offered a choice of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. Barring the most unlikely of circumstances, Boris Johnson is all but guaranteed to become the next Prime Minister, a position he has been waiting for for at least two years. His victory is assured because, in spite of his unpopularity among Conservative MPs and the widespread contempt in which he is held by swathes of the British population, Boris Johnson is the natural choice of Conservative Party members. Because of their demographics, Conservative Party members are not only highly Eurosceptic but, like the citizens of Wellington Wells, entertain questionable versions of history and exhibit an isolation from the rest of the country.

Brexit was not the result of a single factor. But as many commentators and analysts have indicated, nationalist sentiments and imperial nostalgia, particularly among older sections of an English population who believes that Britain alone won the Second World War (despite there being very few people left alive who were combat-active in a war that ended 74 years ago), were significant motivations. Now that the choice of the Prime Minister who will be in Downing Street when October 31st comes, is the choice of 160,000 party members, the demographics of the Conservative Party demonstrate not only why Boris will win, but what awaits Britain after Hard Brexit.

Recent research reveals two significant datasets. First is the demographic composition of the Conservative and Unionist Party. 97% of Conservative members are white. 70% are male. The average age is 57, while 44% of members are over the age of 65. Economically, the vast majority of members are very wealthy homeowners; and geographically, the majority of members are concentrated in rural areas and small towns in the southern shires.

Second is party members’ political preferences surrounding Brexit. The party is conservative not only on economic and constitutional matters but on social issues, as evidenced by the party losing 35-40% of its membership over same-sex marriage in 2013. Research from Queen Mary University shows that half of Conservative members support bringing back the death penalty, and 84% believe that schools should teach obedience to state authority. The remnants of that shrinkage demonstrate stark preferences on Brexit, as revealed by a recent YouGov poll of party members. The June 18th poll revealed that Brexit is so important to party members, they are prepared to initiate the destruction of the party and the fragmentation of the United Kingdom itself, to achieve Brexit. To achieve Brexit, 63% would accept Scotland declaring independence, 61% would accept significant damage to the British economy, 59% would accept Northern Ireland declaring independence or joining the Republic of Ireland, and 54% would accept the destruction of the Conservative Party itself. The only scenario that would cause a razor-thin majority of party members (51%) to abandon Brexit is the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.

The party membership, significantly, is much wealthier than the average Briton. Hence Boris Johnson’s promise to give the super-rich a major tax cut, paid for by raising everyone else’s taxes. Economically, Jeremy Hunt’s plan to slash corporation tax from 19% to 12.5% would be less undesirable, partly because it would likely attract money into the country as opposed to Boris Johnson’s pledge to simply shuffle existing money upwards. In a general election, the Conservatives might have chosen Hunt as party leader over Johnson. But with the future of Britain in the hands of 160,000 party members rather than 45,000,000 eligible voters, Hunt’s policies are irrelevant. And policies of economic loyalties are not the only trump cards which Boris holds. For better or for worse, Boris Johnson is a far more charismatic politician and performs well as a quintessentially English character, combining a Churchillian bulldog pantomime act with just the right level of fake bumbling and self-deprecating modesty. To an ageing, wealthy, shrinking party membership who are already prepared to break up the UK and destroy the party in order to deliver what Fintan O’Toole termed “the paranoid fantasy of Brexit”, the delusional imagination that England single-handedly defeated Nazism and that the EU represents a new continental evil, Johnson is all but guaranteed to win. The implications for this are significant.

The Bow Group’s own research indicates that the Conservative Party is in terminal decline, attracting next to no new members while losing existing members to resignations, lapsed memberships, and death. Significantly, new research on changing political preferences shows that in the age of austerity, Britons are not turning to conservatism in middle age as they used to Research in 2013, which predicted the Conservatives slipping to third or fourth place in the UK by 2023 due to membership attrition alone, has been proven to be right for the wrong reason. The Conservative Party’s disastrous performance in the May 2019 European Parliament elections, and the June 2019 Peterborough by-election, revealed a party that has already slipped into somewhere between third and fifth place; a defeat rendered worse by the six-week-old Brexit party mauling the UK’s oldest party. This leaves Parliament in checkmate, incapable of moving in any direction. The Conservatives are still fighting their civil war, but so are Labour. With Labour still licking its wounds from a decisive defeat in the European elections and a Pyrrhic victory in Peterborough, with Jeremy Corbyn still incapable of formulating anything that vaguely resembles a policy on Brexit, and with Labour likely to spend yet another summer dealing with anti-Semitism accusations (this time, in the form of a government enquiry) there is very little chance that support for a second referendum will receive a Parliamentary majority. Neither will support for a No-Deal Brexit. Neither will support for a revived version of Theresa May’s thrice-defeated Withdrawal Agreement. This leaves the possibility of Boris Johnson calling a general election, but with the Conservatives fighting a war on four fronts against Labour, the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats, and each other, this would be a suicidal option. Meanwhile a stronger EU is in no mood to extend the Brexit negotiations any further. The net result of this is that unless something unforeseen and highly unlikely happens, October 31st will quickly arrive with a No-Deal Brexit as the default option, no matter what Parliament wants.

There are other possibilities, as unlikely as they are. Boris Johnson could promise No Deal just long enough to win the support of 160,000 Conservative leavers, then betray them as soon as he gets the keys to Downing Street (unlikely). Boris could end up relying heavily on Conservative ministers who might try to steer him away from Hard Brexit (quite unlikely). Jeremy Corbyn could resign his leadership and make way for a Remainer to lead Labour (very unlikely). Or perhaps a general election could actually produce a majority for a party – any party – which has a clear Leave or Remain stance, and at least break the deadlock in Parliament (most unlikely). Or, something unexpected and unpredictable could happen, such as Boris Johnson becoming the third Conservative Prime Minister to be toppled by Brexit, triggering yet another leadership race or an election in the last days before Brexit. Yet even if a general election in the autumn returns some sort of majority, either for the Tories or Labour (or even the Liberal Democrats, however unlikely that may be), the new Prime Minister will still be faced with a polarised country whose faith in politicians, and in British politics itself, has never been lower. With the October 31st deadline looming, no Prime Minister will be able to satisfactorily navigate an angry Parliament and a furious electorate. Hard Brexit is the likeliest outcome not only because of a lack of time and appetite for a second referendum, and not only because Parliament is too deadlocked and the EU too fed up with the British to offer another extension, but because it is the desire of the Conservative Party’s membership. Even if it means the destruction of their party and the breakup of their country, splendid isolation at any price is the final act of Brexit.

The videogame We Happy Few paints a bleak picture of Britain after disaster. In the crumbling wasteland of Wellington Wells the government’s and population’s desperation to quarantine their town from the outside world, and from their own despair at losing the Empire and losing a war, has resulted in a starving, economically devastated realm teetering on the brink of complete societal collapse. In this defeated dystopia, the grim realities of past, present, and future are glossed over by a shrinking group of citizens who shun reality in favour of manufactured memories, delusions of grandeur, and empty affirmations of quintessentially English (but not British) exceptionalism. With Britain’s actual future in the hands of a similarly shrinking group, life will soon imitate this art.





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To the Brink of Democracy and an Unholy Alliance with the US


With the installation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the second of the (self-declared) oldest democracies of the world, has, alongside political developments in the United States, reached a tipping point. The political system(s), and most importantly the traditional principle of the division of powers, of both will have to demonstrate their resilience against anti-democratic leaders. If this principle fails to show its working order and effectiveness, then democratic politics and the recognition of the rule of law in the US and the UK are seriously endangered. There can be no doubt that Johnson and his cabinet suffer from democratic illegitimacy: a handful of people, namely the party members of the Conservatives and Conservative Members of Parliament at Westminster, have voted for a new Prime Minister, while the nation’s electorate has been ignored. The counterargument that Johnson’s legitimacy derives from the mandate of the Conservatives’ win in the 2017 general election is, however, an invalid argument as the electorate mandated, and arguable rightly so, a prime minister (Theresa May) who promoted and pursued a very different agenda to Johnson. This is what received a public mandate, not Johnson.

As a consequence, Johnson’s premiership resembles a democratically illegitimate coup d’état by an elitist minority, now established with power over life-impacting decisions on future generations – namely the outcome of Brexit. New elections to receive a mandate, or not, would be the only democratically acceptable way forward. New elections to receive democratic legitimacy applies to Johnson as this demand similarly would have applied to Gordon Brown’s succession of Tony Blair in 2007. But Johnson would not be Johnson if he called for new elections as this would exhibit uncharacteristic honesty and democratic attitudes. As an alternative example in a comparative perspective, the then spiritual brother of Margaret Thatcher, the previous German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998), launched a similar change of government (although through a confidence vote, not party leadership change), but immediately announced new elections after his toppling of the previous government in 1983.

This points to the question of honesty in politics; and this brings us back to the reference to the US. With Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the US and the UK, two Western nations that pride themselves as the oldest democracies worldwide, have two supreme political leaders who have a proven record of public naughtiness with regard to their uneven and erratic tempers, their disrespectful language and misbehaviour towards their likewise erratically chosen enemies (often in public through social media), their ignorance or dismissal of their fellow citizens’ sentiments and fair-mindedness; and whose behaviour is influenced, if not determined by egomania. Thus, the question arises inevitably: how could it come to this? One might probably have to admit that politicians have always twisted their arguments, even lied, have always pursued bipartisan ideologies, and have always needed a strong ego to sustain and be successful in political competition. This is very likely true. But what causes dismay and disgrace is the blatant and unashamed impertinence with which the Trumps and Johnsons of this world present their divisive ideologies time and again. (It is noteworthy that Trump has been the first well-wisher to Johnson, via Twitter, of course, in his typically gauche language, calling him a ‘good man’ and a ‘very good guy’).

But also this has been the case in history, one might say: there have always been nasty politicians, and the inversion of democratic values and political ethics into activist, thoughtless, and aggressive battle-cries is not only what we know from political literature, but also from history. (The analogy to fascism of Trump’s stirring-up rants during his rallies, for example, is not (yet) what Johnson does, but one does not need to stretch the imagination too far to imagine Johnson acting like this). However, the crucial point is: even if there are historic precedents of politicians acting and speaking like Trump and Johnson, this only raises suspicions of how far down politics has declined the UK and the US to have two supreme leaders who relentlessly violate democratic public goods and political ethics, foremost of which is their complete lack of respect for plurality, equality, law, and honesty.

Likewise, this points to another conclusion. There is no doubt that there are millions of decent people in the UK and the US who are offended and disgusted by the likes of Johnson and Trump. But the fact that such men have risen to the highest leadership raises, too, the question of the moral fabric of societies which create the conditions for them to rise to power. Just one simple question: We would be unlikely to accept a person who constantly lies and cheats in our circle of friends, but society has made it possible that they become installed as national leaders. As potential friends we would not grant them enough credibility to be trustworthy and we would turn around and tell them to leave a dinner party. But what do we do when such people occupy national executives and heavily influence our, and our children’s future? The founder of investigative journalism, the US journalist Walter Lippmann, in the 1920s stated that a society which cannot detect lies is not fit for freedom. Hence, are we fit for freedom?

Parts of British and American society appear to be sleepwalking into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: amusing themselves so to not realise their loss of freedom. And there is a sheer endless number of trivial daily amusements in the modern, image-flooded, technological world. So, we have to be on our toes and relentlessly vigilant to master the challenge of our times: namely to work for the cultivation of public mores which would not allow the likes of Trump and Johnson to hijack politics. Such mores, i.e., foremost respect for plurality, equality, law, and honesty, would link the public mandate of leadership with esteem and decency which it has lost. Some may say that this was never the case, however, we should not forget about the differences between, for instance Jimmy Carter or John McCain and Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson’s record of dishonesty and amateurishness as Mayor of London and before. Loud activism seems to render politics ill-founded and desultory. But we as people should not accept this. We deserve better. But we have to get involved and make our disagreements and discomfort heard. We need to detect and unveil the twists and tweaks of their politics; and we must use all legal means to fight for our freedom and future which is threatened by egocentric and ill-prepared demagogues whose only skills are outrage and noisy political behaviour. However, to not sleepwalk like Huxley’s protagonists and not amusing ourselves to death (i.e., losing freedom) without noticing it, we need a further awareness because Trump’s and Johnson’s lies are creating deeper labyrinths. Their language is ‘gaslighting’, i.e. psychologically manipulative and distorting our perception of reality, reminding us of the eponymous 1944-movie with Ingrid Bergmann. To not have our political perception of what is ‘honest’ and ‘dishonest’, ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’, ‘respectful’ and ‘disrespectful’ destroyed and inverted, and to not get used to regard politics as per se evil and selfish, but to uphold certain standards of public life and mandate, we must cultivate our awareness and sharpness observing and critically commenting on politics; and not only amusing ourselves while drifting into the dystopia of a brave new world.

Coming back to Lippmann’s warning: It emphasises another indispensable condition for freedom to detect lies, namely to the value of education. Education is here understood not as specialised education in a particular subject, discipline, or profession, but as the cultivation of general knowledge and of political and ethical judgement, parallel to the German concept of “Bildung”. In other words, this skill of political judgment and knowledge would theoretically allow every individual to scrutinise the knowledge claims made by politicians. It would allow to check those claims for evidence, consistency, and factual truth. It would thus detect lies or “gaslighting”. This is a crucial target for primary, secondary, and HE in order to build and save democracy; and every democracy that really wants to be one should aspire this critical skill in its people. Many conclusions for the educational system and the national curriculum follow-on from this which to develop I do not have time here. But critical issues touch upon questions of student fees, elitism, social mobility through education, and curriculum development. The neo-liberalisation and the development of education into a market commodity seem detrimental to Lippmann’s plea and the conditions of its realization. Indeed, and this is last point I wish to make, there is seems to be a silent, but ever stronger and harmful complicity between the neo-liberalisation of education and authoritarian government – that is authoritarian precisely as it abolishes a critical civil society.

This aspect becomes visible through the application of a Foucauldian perspective on the relation between power and knowledge and would suggest that knowledge is organised in such a way that it produces a certain kind of society to make a certain kind of power organisation and execution possible. When applying this to the power of capitalist market ideology, then knowledge would be organised so that it produces a non-reflective, non-critical consumer: in large, a consumer society which does not critically explore politics, government, elections, public morality, the limits of law and ethics, but is complacent in superficial happiness, with money-making, and consumerism. Such critique of modern, industrial society is not new – we know such critique since the 1960s with Herbert Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man – but such critique receives novel topicality through the current overwhelming degree of political disenchantment and retreat into the private sphere. In this vein, it would be important research to study comparatively the structure, content, and historical developments of national curricula in the UK, the US, and elsewhere in order to determine and assess this ‘soft skill’, so-to-speak, of democracy and the future of democratic society.





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