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  • Living in Interesting Times: Britain’s Next Five Years August 25, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback


    This blogger has followed British politics for the best part of thirty years and things have never been so ‘interesting’: there is a storm building up around the UK, which Britain’s neighbours and allies have been slow to recognise. What has created this storm? Put simply two big things have happened at once: important existential problems have come to the boil; and the post war political order is imploding (think of it as the cooking surface on which the pan is cooking, crashing down onto the tiles). On their own either of these would have been disorienting. Together, they will prove, and quicker than most commentators allow, country-changing.

    First, the existential problems. All people and all countries have, from time to time, ‘issues’, and this is a good thing. If you wake up at 4.00 AM chewing the bed sheets it is a sign that something must go: a job, a friend, ambitions… Britain, though, has a pair of crises of identity, the greatest since the last world war: the question of whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom; and the question of whether Britain should leave the European Union. The Scottish question was the subject of a referendum last year, but it remains an open question, with growing support for independence, and it is likely that there will be another referendum in the next two to ten years. The European question, meanwhile, it has been decided, will be dealt with in a referendum in 2016 or 2017.

    These two questions will take an awful lot of digesting whatever the final result. It is, then, the country’s misfortune that these existential questions have coincided with the collapse of politics as we know it: a system based on two parties (Labour-Conservative) with a third-wheel smaller party (the Liberal Democrats). This collapse has taken place in three stages. First, there has been the rise of important political movements outside the old trio: the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens and the UK Independence Party. These parties have grown from minority groups into significant movements: the SNP got 4.7% nationally (and just over 50% in Scotland), the Greens got 3.8% and UKIP an incredible 12.7% in the last general election in 2015. Second, we have seen the collapse of the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, which shrank to 7.9% in that same election and were reduced to 8 MPs (1.2% of the house). The LD collapse has now been cemented by the election of an earnest but unappealing leader, in the mould of Joe Grimond, a dull Liberal chieftain from the 1960s.

    These two changes might be argued to be part of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ of British political life: change has to be part of the system and similar events have taken place in the past, e.g. the rise of the SDP in the early 1980s. But the third shift, which is underway, would present us with something entirely new. The Labour party, a patriotic, anti-revolutionary centre left movement with a long and honourable history on the opposition benches of the Commons (and a mixed record in government) is presently in the midst of a leadership campaign. There are four candidates. Two opinion polls suggest that one, Jeremy Corbyn (pictured above) is going to stomp home: the results are announced 12 September. Much has been made of the fact that Corbyn has relied on many non-Labour members who have joined ‘the primaries’ (a new experience for Labour). But this is something of a red herring as, if the polls are to be believed, Corbyn is going to win by such a large margin that he would have done so with Labour party members alone. His victory will be an act of gruesome self-mutilation for his party.

    Why? Three reasons. First, Corbyn would be the most left-wing leader of a mainstream British political party since the 1920s, in a country that has become gradually more conservative: he is, in fact, a radical who has gone on record as saying that he would never befriend someone on the other side of the political spectrum (apparently ‘ideals’ get in the way), though he has no such scruples about sharing platforms and photo-ops with holocaust deniers from Britain’s Islamist left. Second, Corbyn lacks charisma and while effective as a rebel (and he is a fine speaker), he is no national leader. Third, he would enjoy the enthusiastic support of about seven percent of the parliamentary Labour party, a paradoxical situation that would lead to open war between Labour MPs and the wider party. Corbyn’s election, if it happens, will see Labour, that has, in the last decades, polled between 30 and 40% drop, in fairly quick order, to half that number. With a swing to the far left for Britain’s second party and the absence of a credible third party there is the mystery of where fleeing Labour moderates will go. There is also the tragedy that a mediocre Conservative government – a B- government at best, which is presently assaulting important freedoms – will lose an effective opposition in the House of Commons. Bad news, then, for everyone.

    Party systems break down and re-form. This is normal in a democracy and if it were not for the two huge existential questions hanging over the UK some open windows would be welcome: life in Britain tends towards the stuffy. But mixed together with those existential questions things get messy. If you are thinking about divorcing your hubbie or making a career change it is best not to do so after a death in the family,  or during a difficult pregnancy. These kinds of decisions need careful thinking and long walks on the beach. But both referenda will take place to the backdrop of uncharacteristic political instability in the UK. First, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn Scotland’s chances for independence in the next ten years will shoot up. The Labour party has been the only party capable of taking on the Scot Nats, north of the border, and they are about to melt away. (There is a very long shot chance that a new centre Unionist party forms in Scotland, taking in the three Unionist parties, but don’t hold your breath.) The European Referendum is, meanwhile, thrown wide open. There is a small chance that Corbyn will do the unthinkable and campaign for a vote for Britain to leave the European Union; something that, regrettably, no British political leader has considered for the past thirty years. The vacuum created by the collapse of Labour will create, meanwhile, an unpredictable black hole in the EU referendum campaign: God knows what waits for Britain on the other side of the wormhole. Klingons, God, King Arthur…

    Are you British or resident in Britain?

    Be afraid, be very afraid.

    If Corbyn wins 12 September 2015 may be remembered as the most important date in British history since the end of the Second World War: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    29 Aug 2015: KHM writes ‘All the Western democracies are suffering from the same disease: a deficiency of leadership talent at the top. The ships of state are running on a fuel gauge that says “empty” and no one can prevent the inevitable crash that is just over the horizon. Who or what will fill the vacuum? Russia wants to, and China wants what Japan wanted 80-some years ago.  Russia and China both have a geopolitical advantage. Their collaboration will tell us what to expect in the dark days ahead.’