When the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, normally given to understatement, said two weeks ago that America and Britain must henceforth be seen as unreliable allies of Europe, the U.S. because of the election of Donald Trump and the UK after Brexit, she cannot have known where the British general election was heading. Her extraordinary pronouncement caused resentment in London, but the election result is likely to have reinforced her opinion rather than caused her to revise it. A tragedy for the country itself, it is also bad news for the Western world.
The hope was that the Conservative leader Theresa May would gain a majority of 100 or more, large enough to cement her parliamentary authority and thus secure a good deal with Brussels in the imminent Brexit negotiations. Such a result would also have helped sanitize the British body politic by trimming the power of hardliners on the Right and Left. By giving May more parliamentary leeway, rightwing Brexiteers would see their influence reduced, and a massive electoral defeat for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would undermine the far Left and embolden the Labour moderates—a majority of MPs—to throw him out.
All these hopes have been shattered. In the hung Parliament this election has produced, May will be even more exposed to right-wing pressure, and Corbyn’s surprise showing will validate, in his own eyes at least, his determination to remain opposition leader. In other words, the winners of the election in moderate, pragmatic Britain are the extremists on either side. In foreign policy one of them is anti-NATO and soft on Moscow, and the other is anti-European—both imply a dilution of British influence in the community of Western nations. On Brexit the Tory right wants a confrontational negotiation with Brussels leading to a clean break with the EU, politically, economically, and militarily.
Their Conservative Party is now half-crippled, yet the zealots and their backers in the right-wing media will not give up, thereby endangering May’s future. Because their vision of the world is so outlandish, foreigners find it hard to understand. Like some latter-day League of Empire Loyalists, in the Tory imagination a definitive break with Europe will be followed by a return to the splendid isolation of the mid-19th century.
As a global power free of entangling alliances with Europe, the UK will compensate for the loss of almost half its exports when it leaves the EU single market by going it alone in the world. Non-EU countries, notably China and former colonies like India, will clamour to trade with us, our industrial sector will revive, and Manchester will renew its rightful place as workshop of the world.
A caricature? Listen to this, from an article in the Daily Telegraph:
Of all the many splendid opportunities provided by the British people’s heroic Brexit vote, perhaps the greatest is the resuscitation of the idea of a CANZUK Union. Winston Churchill’s great dream of a Western alliance based on three separate blocs might one day live again, thanks to Brexit. The first and second blocs—the USA and a United State of Europe—are already in place. Now it is time for the last—CANZUK—to retake her place as the third pillar of Western Civilization.
This ultra-patriotic claptrap is from the pen of the British historian Andrew Roberts, an excitable Brexiteer, whose extravagant views on foreign policy are taken seriously on the British Right. (UK exports to Australia, incidentally, are 1 percent of the total.)
So much for the fantasy Right. In the world of Jeremy Corbyn, British global preeminence is to be moral, its standing boosted by unilateral abandonment of our independent nuclear deterrent, a hostile stance towards the United States and Israel and a friendlier one towards Russia, Hamas, Hezbollah, and above all Venezuela. On the real and immediate problem of the European Union, he has little to say, though in the past he has defended uncontrolled immigration, notably from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and voted against every piece of anti-terrorist legislation as the threat from an influx of jihadis has grown.
In the middle of this parliamentary circus, though with no whip to crack, will stand, gaunt and forlorn, the almost powerless figure of Theresa May. In a country prone to self-delusion, whether about the quality of its television, its contemporary art, the value of its houses, or the stature of its politicians, the election results will bring us closer to reality. Before, the centre-right media had convinced itself that May represented the sacred Margaret’s second coming, and that, given sufficient parliamentary backing, the negotiators of Brussels would be duly floored by the new Thatcher’s handbag.
Then suddenly, in mid-campaign, as the same press unsentimentally put it, Saint Theresa had been rumbled. One commentator suggested that the contest for the leadership of Britain was between two second-rate mediocrities. This is unfair to Theresa—Corbyn, with no brain in his head and no experience of office, is fifth-rate—but delusions about her have definitively gone. A woman with negative charisma, she has been accused of developing a cult of no personality. Intellectually insecure, except in stiff, nervous incantations, she has no gift of words. Even when she had a sound anti-Corbyn message, on TV she was a national turnoff. Her response to the second terrorist attack during the campaign, on London Bridge? “Enough is enough.” So was the first one, in Manchester, okay?
May’s contact with her ministers and civil servants is as distant and guarded as it is with the public. She is shielded by two No. 10 guard dogs of questionable quality and with combustible tempers: a former Glasgow journalist and a 37-year-old political adviser from Birmingham, said to be a thinker. The consequences of closeting herself with this pair for the campaign were catastrophic. It is difficult to alienate the older and younger generation simultaneously, but they managed it, by tossing into May’s manifesto without consultation a hugely contentious proposal involving the higher contributions to the cost of care in later life, threatening parents’ homes and children’s inheritances.
The contrast with the real Thatcher is instructive. Having seen her at work as a diplomat, then as a Minister for Higher Education in her government, I know Thatcher was not only open to argument, she loved it, and I enjoyed a number with her myself. Of course she had some right-wing cronies but she never hid behind them, preferring to thrash things out directly with Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants, many of them highly capable minds, on which she was happy to sharpen her own.
Under May the future of Britain looks as bleak and uncertain as her own. The Tory right will be merciless with her: A former “Remain” voter in the referendum suspected of sympathy with leftwing social causes, her authority is shot to pieces in the Tory Party, as it is in the House. Always nervous-looking at the best of times, and never more than when she does her I-shall-not-be-moved Thatcher impressions, it is hard to see her lasting.
The fond pretence that we are on course for a bruising but ultimately triumphal Brexit negotiation, whether there is an agreement or not, is fast crumbling. If they didn’t suspect it before (and sober minds did), the country, the markets, and EU negotiators now know that this was little more than a charade. Not just May herself but the trio of ministers in the forefront of the Brexit talks—David Davis, Liam Fox, and the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson—are in different ways second-rate too.
Johnson, a clever/silly, un-grown-up former columnist and Mayor of London, sprays words around so loosely and self-indulgently that he was kept largely in the background in the election. Yet this could help him now. Such is the paucity of talent in the Tory party—less evident than in Labour but painful just the same—that in mutterings about how long May can remain leader after her humiliation, to the incredulity of foreigners who have met him, Johnson, a favourite on the Right, will doubtless feature.
All this is poor news for the mother of parliaments, and the continued lack of a mature opposition will reduce its reputation further. What his supporters will sell as Corbyn’s triumph (and compared with expectations, it is) will mean that he will stay on as leader, thereby condemning Labour to years of vicious internal strife. The way Corbyn usurped the top job was through a change by his predecessor Ed Milliband in the mechanism for electing leaders, which gave all members, together with the trade unions, dominance, diminishing the influence of the (on the whole more moderate) MPs.
Now the party militants (not a few of them ex- or current Trotskyists) will use his unexpected success to stymie any challenge to his leadership and beef up his standing with respect to the moderates further. Not a few able MPs have left Labour in despair. Now, they may have to accommodate themselves to a reinforced Leftist clique.
For the country, there is worse. A month ago Corbyn as Prime Minister would have seemed a joke; in shrunken Britain, not any more. Buoyed by what will be touted as a moral victory in the campaign, the hard Left will hope for a real one next time, in 2022 or before if the May can no longer get legislation through the House, notably on Brexit. (Whether her health can take the strain is another factor.) And the key to everything will be the performance of the economy.
Corbyn is the poor man’s Lenin; “the worse the better” was one of the master’s sayings, and under the former, that will be the party’s direction of travel. May’s election disaster will damage the country’s prospects, already subsiding over the uncertainties of Brexit, a shrinking pound, and rising inflation. The instant reaction of markets to a hung Parliament has been softened by hopes that, with no majority for the “hard Brexit” favoured by the Right, some as yet unspecified softer version could be negotiated over time. Yet the details of such a compromise, not least the implications for immigration and the complexities of getting it through Parliament, boggle the mind. “Remain” interests are already putting it about that we may never leave. What is certain is that the Brexit agony is destined to be drawn-out, and a drain on the national energies.
If the Tories are riven by divisions over the day-to-day negotiations, the European Union plays hardball, and the economy hits serious trouble, a Tory collapse and a Corbyn government, unthinkable only weeks ago, could be in the cards. As the trade unions’ confidence in him grows and the public’s fear of him declines, the prospect of politically motivated industrial action to push things along looms, especially in public services. A worst-case scenario, perhaps, but no longer one to be excluded.
Whatever else the pundits expected from the British elections no one anticipated a major upset of the established political order that we have seen. Nowhere was there any suggestion that, following the Brexit and Trump shocks, a third explosion of populist sentiment could shake the suppositions of the Western world about sensible, stable Britain by championing a 68-year-old far Leftist suffering from arrested political development, compared with whom Bernie Sanders is a model of pragmatism and sobriety. Yet the electorate spun on a sixpence and a massive 40 percent voted for him against a mere 42 percent for the Tories.
Why did no one foresee this? A few months ago I myself wrote:
At best Corbyn is a pious moralist aspiring to the condition of a holy fool. The poor man is not of this world and would do better to enter the church—any church—where he can chant its eternal verities to his heart’s content. As it is, intellectually he is rag doll manipulated by a couple of expensively-educated neo-Marxist puppeteers.
The voters appear to have taken another view. My consolation is that I was not alone. Corbyn was seen by the Tories as a gift from God, and as a unelectable laughing stock by the 80 percent of his own parliamentary party who backed a vote of no confidence in him last year. It is true that he ran a good campaign, shutting up about Brexit and itemising all the goodies Labour would scatter with borrowed money, from free university finance to a massively boosted NHS. Yet surely the voters would understand that, however tough things had been since the recession, free spending combined with sharply higher taxes and a massive assault on business was pie in the sky economics?
But they didn’t. The non-reading, 140-character generation saw the shower of gold descending and said, “Yeah, like it!” So did those whose pay has yet to get back to 2008 levels. And instead of not voting, this time they did, as online registering made it simple. Then there were the luvvie Lefties in the media, and the celebrity playpen revolutionaries, who simply adored Corbyn. So genuine and authentic, don’t you think?
The rest of us, meanwhile, got our own country wrong.
A country that had been collectively appalled at the sight of deluded hordes of U.S. voters electing Trump to the White House has done something not dissimilar, by awarding the power to foul up stable government in Britain not to a right-wing hardhat, but to his soft-spoken though no less weird and intellectually stunted leftwing equivalent. What we are talking about is a debased Anglo-American political culture, and we are in it together.
Clinton’s talk about the “deplorables” may have been a political mistake, but that does not mean she was wrong about their existence. Along with racists, homophobes and the rest, “deplorables” should include the larger numbers of folk whose low educational standing (personal or institutional), ignorance (willful or induced), or cultural backwardness make them incapable of making mature judgements.
And in Britain, it should be remembered, public education levels are amongst the lowest in Europe—except for the 7 percent who buy their way out of the state system. It goes without saying that former Prime Minister David Cameron, who recklessly called the referendum, and Boris Johnson, a chancer and self-seeking Brexiteer, are Etonians, with high levels of insouciance. Nor is their interest in the educational levels of the 93 percent compelling.
It is not a question of whether you vote Left or Right, but of the ability to recognize that Trump and Corbyn, for different reasons, are beyond the pale. A recent letter from the editor of The American Interest (“A World Beyond Obsession”) stated of the Trump presidency: “So now we behold on a daily basis a political reality that often resembles the basest kind of reality TV fare, full of artificial drama and continuous mendacity. Yet shockingly large numbers of Americans cannot or do not care to mark the difference.”
The behaviour of your British cultural cousins, whose electoral choices are fondly imagined to be on a more sophisticated level altogether, is a reminder that you are not alone.
Emmanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, an 18th-century charter for a democratic order, wasn’t just about banning secret treaties or abolishing standing armies. What he made clear time and again was that his blueprint for peace and prosperity was based on an educated, rational public. In their consideration of politics what proportion of the Anglo-American public could be described as educated and rational today?
Russia’s President Putin has become a handy ready-reckoner as to good or bad Western election results. In the United States he pronounced himself delighted by the advent of Trump, even if a more sober assessment might have led him to foresee that the global instabilities his candidate could wreak might cumulatively damage Russian interests. In France his crypto-fascist friend Le Pen lost, and President Macron is showing healthy tendencies. And if Angela Merkel succeeds in staying in power in Germany’s Autumn elections—the signs are good—then that will be another sore head for Putin.
In Britain, meanwhile, the Kremlin’s cup has overflowed. The Russians were spoiled for choice, and the results could scarcely have been better. The EU referendum last June was a gift to their strategy of smashing up Europe and dealing separately with the bits. This time the Tories went into the election bent on pressing ahead with their own work of destruction—destructive not just for the EU but for Britain herself. And as a Bolshevik sentimentalist and economic wrecker Corbyn was another plus. Chaos and instability in historically stable Britain—what’s not to like?
The triumph of Trump raised the question: whither Western democracy? The British result does the same. And this at a time when voices in the emerging world were already muttering, “Say what you like about their ethics, but in leadership terms, with Xi Jinping, Putin, Erdogan, you know where you stand.” Whatever else they think they are doing, in non-Western eyes Anglo-American voters are devaluing democracy, and thereby giving the attractions of authoritarian governments a bit of a boost.