In the United Kingdom, the winter of 1978-1979 has been known as the Winter of Discontent, a phrase coming from the opening line of William Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the Winter of our Discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York”. It describes a period of economic and political malaise in the country which resulted in the election of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and the greatest sea change in British politics since Clement Attlee’s Labour government following World War II.
Over 35 years later, it can be said that with regard to Britain, “the isle is full of noises”, and this is borrowed from another line by Shakespeare – this time, from The Tempest. Certainly, it does describe the rapidly changing and seemingly restless nature of British politics and society today. The improbable rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), the UK Independence Party (UKIP), other political and social movements, and the once unthinkable notion of a politician like Jeremy Corbyn leading Her Majesty’s Opposition have rocked the political establishment.
All of these movements speak to the disenchantment with mainstream politics and the embrace of what are considered to be the fringes on both the left and right ever since the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the subsequent Great Recession. The economic downturn combined with austerity measures and the general feeling that the establishment is not adequately responding to the needs of the people has made for a vastly cynical populace that no longer wishes to take its cues from the establishment and now listens to, and supports, whatever and whoever speaks to them.
This has resulted in the fracturing of British politics as the broad consensus shared by the main political parties – Labour, Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats – appears to be coming undone, and even though the “center” did hold in the recent general election with a (slim) majority Conservative government being returned to power under Prime Minister David Cameron, it appears that the current political upheaval has not yet run its course, and there are parallels across the Pond in America.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition Labour Party on September 12, 2015 was nothing less than a repudiation of the centrist establishment that had been running the UK’s leading left-wing party since the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994. Blair had led the party to three straight general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005 – ushering 13 years of a Labour government with him as prime minister, and making him the most successful leader of the party and the longest-serving Labour prime minister.
But there has always been an undercurrent of Labour supporters and sympathizers who believed that the party had drifted to far to the right in order to capture the center ground of British politics and win elections, and when Blair’s successor Gordon Brown lost the election of 2010 and resigned as party leader, one of his protégés, Ed Miliband, won the leadership – helped along with the backing of the trade unions who preferred him over his Blairite older brother David. Under Miliband’s leadership, the party edged to the left, but struggled to present a clear and viable alternative to the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats under David Cameron, which emerged after the electorate had produced a hung parliament with the Tories as the biggest party but with no overall control of the House of Commons.
Indeed, it was felt that the party had become “Tory-lite” – merely going for changes along the edges of what the Tory-led government was doing, and not vigorously opposing its agenda of austerity, which the Tories have said was due to Labour spending too much and racking up huge budget deficits. All of this came against the backdrop of the financial crisis and Great Recession, during which Labour under Gordon Brown had bailed out failing banks and engaged in extra spending to stave off a deeper crisis. But Labour’s credibility on the economy was heavily damaged by all this, which resulted in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.
That government engaged in a program of fiscal austerity, which proved very controversial because it involved cutting benefits and housing payments to the unemployed/underemployed, implementing welfare reform, increasing tuition fees for universities, privatizing the Royal Mail, and expanding the use of private delivery of public services (including the National Health Service), and other measures designed to reduce the deficit and put the country back on track.
But for many, these were nothing less than going after the poorest and most vulnerable in order to pay for the financial calamity brought about by lightly-regulated banks, and as the economy struggled to bounce back with austerity measures in place, the government became very unpopular.
The Liberal Democrats, as the junior partners of the coalition government with party leader Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister, suffered the most from a backlash by some of those who had voted for it as an alternative to both Labour and the Tories in 2010. Most significant among younger voters was its acquiescence to the increase in tuition fees, which it had pledged to oppose during the election, and this became emblematic of a party more concerned about power than its promises.
Ideally, it was Labour that should have reaped the rewards of this discontent, but the party suffered from three major problems. One was that while people were willing to support a Labour government in the abstract, they could not imagine Ed Miliband – lampooned as Wallace from Wallace and Grommit in the press – as prime minister. Second was the sense that Labour – not wanting to abandon the center ground – was not putting forth a distinct and viable vision from that of the coalition government and the Tories in particular. This leads to the third issue: the rise of left-wing alternatives.
In Scotland, the SNP under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon had portrayed Labour as part of the “Westminster Establishment”, where it along with Tories and LibDems were virtually indistinguishable from one another, and also complicit in the recent parliamentary expenses scandal, and other – real and imagined – “Westminster misdoings.” This was played to the hilt during the independence referendum campaign during which all three parties participated in the Better Together campaign to keep the United Kingdom together. Even after they were defeated, the Nationalists saw a spike in popularity as the message about Labour being no different from the Tories resonated in places such as Glasgow and West Central Scotland, Lanarkshire, and Dundee, which had been voting Labour for generations, but now felt disillusioned and taken for granted by a party which had (supposedly) abandoned its traditional working class and left-wing values in pursuit of chasing Tory votes in Middle England, and had been standing “should-to-shoulder” with the Tories during the referendum – leading to pejorative of “Red Tories.”
In England and Wales, the party was treated on similar grounds by the Green Party and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, but it was in Scotland where the energies of referendum campaign had spilled over to general election this year and resulted in Labour losing 40 of its 41 Scottish seats to the SNP, including that of Jim Murphy, the leader of the party in Scotland. Overall, Labour was defeated across the UK and a majority Tory government emerged, helped along with an economy that was showing signs of life, which boosted the Tories economic credibility and prevented Labour from overcoming the economic baggage associated with it during the financial crisis.
Ed Miliband resigned, and the party was in search of a new leader. The initial three candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall – were establishment figures who were more-or-less committed to keeping Labour in the center in the belief that a lurch to the left of Miliband would do the party no favors. Nevertheless, just enough MP’s nominated the obscure backbencher and left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, the 66 year old MP for North Islington, to be placed on the ballot in the leadership election. Many of them nominated him not such because they wanted or expected him to win the leadership, but because they hoped he would broaden the debate within the party and show that there was at least still a place for left-winger like Corbyn.
But as the other candidates failed to impress, Corbyn tapped into an antiestablishment sentiment throughout the UK, and was soon on the rise. He was helped along by hundreds of thousands of new members to the party and many more who paid £3.00 ($4.60) to be a “registered supporter” of the party and voted for him. Establishment figures such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown warned against his election as leader and emphasized the need to be in power, but increasing numbers of Labour members and sympathizers – many of whom had been disillusioned by the rightward direction of the party – were in no mood to listen to who they saw as unimaginative dinosaurs from another era that had the party ever farther away from its traditional roots as a party that stood up against vested interests and demanded radical action to improve society for everyone – especially the disadvantaged and working classes.
The result was that Corbyn was elected with nearly 60% of the vote – a huge popular mandate larger than Blair’s in 1994 – on this tide of antiestablishment feeling to become the most left-wing leader of the Labour Party since the 1930’s.
Among other things, he is a republican who believes that the British monarchy ought to be abolished (though he has said that this is not a priority). Corbyn would like to see Britain give up its nuclear deterrent in the form of the sea-based Trident program, and by extension, wants to terminate membership of NATO, which is after all, a nuclear-tipped military alliance. For that matter, he wants Britain to reduce its military commitments and stay out of military interventions. He has shown a lukewarm attitude toward the UK’s membership of EU – partly out of concern for worker’s rights and the economic bloc’s negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States. Corbyn favors higher taxes – especially on the wealthy, and wants to reverse the current course of austerity with increased government spending, alongside the Bank of England printing more money as part of what he calls a “people’s QE” – a reference to the quantitative easing (QE) provided to banks during the financial crisis and recession. Most significantly, he favors the renationalization of industries and public services that have been privatized over the last four decades, such as railroads and energy companies.
Taken together, this amounts to a complete reversal of everything that has characterized Labour in the last generation or so – away from moderate social democratic thinking, rejecting the politics of the Third Way, definitively dispensing with the “New Labour” brand, and returning to socialism.
Much ink has already been spilled on, and hot air released about, the death of not just New Labour, but the Labour Party as a significant political force in the United Kingdom which strives to be viable and competent alternative to the current government, and more crucially, actually wishes to be in government and hold the reins of power.
Indeed, with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats following their involvement in the coalition with the Tories, it would seem that the Tories are on their way to perpetual rule. But they have a majority of only 12 in the Commons, and even though this can be bolstered to around 30 with the support of Democratic Unionist (DUP) and Ulster Unionist (UUP) MP’s and the exclusion of the abstentionist Sinn Fein MP’s from Northern Ireland , the reality is that the Tories have their own problems.
Before the election, they were most concerned about a threat from the right in the form of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to terminate the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). Under party leader Nigel Farage, the party had succeeded in campaigning against the increasing influence of the EU over British internal affairs, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed off by the last Labour government. It also exploited public anxieties and concerns over immigration – mostly from the EU (with its policy of freedom of movement among member states) and especially after restrictions to some former Eastern Bloc countries were lifted in the last decade as they acceded to EU membership. This too was done by the last Labour administration, and indeed, it was perceived as out of touch with the public on immigration, especially after former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called a voter “bigoted” after she asked him questions on immigration during the general election campaign on 2010.
Meanwhile, David Cameron of the Tories had called on his party to stop “banging on” about Europe, for even though it was the Conservatives who took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) under Edward Heath in 1973, ever since the Maastricht Treaty which formally created the European Union, the party has struggled with divisions over the issue of whether to be a member. Indeed, those who started UKIP were former Tories like Farage who disagreed with Maastricht, which was negotiated and signed off by John Major in 1992, because they saw it as a sell-out of Britain’s sovereignty. Fast-forward to more recent times, and the issue of immigration – among others – has animated those who are “Eurosceptics” and wish to see the UK control its borders. This includes many Tory MP’s, especially those elected in 2010 and in this year, who were elected partly on the basis of getting tough on immigration and reversing the influence of the EU on Britain, especially on British laws.
During the last government, support for UKIP – which Cameron once dismissed as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists” – increased dramatically as immigration numbers went up (despite David Cameron pledging to keep them down), as more EU laws applied to Britain, and as Britain’s participation in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) seemingly made it virtually impossible to deport foreign criminals and radical clerics.
In the face of this and more than a few backbench rebellions over Europe, Cameron in 2013 announced that should his party win the next general election, he would seek to reform the terms of Britain’s existing membership of the EU, following which he would hold a referendum on that reformed membership by 2017. In the local elections of 2013 and the EU parliamentary elections in 2014, this did not seem to help Cameron or his party as UKIP made major gains in these elections, and in particular, topped the EU poll last year. Later on, there were two UK parliamentary defections from the Tories to UKIP, and the threat of several more as UKIP appeared to be gaining strength at the expense of the Tories heading into the general election.
As it was, the Tories held themselves together to win the election outright – their first such election victory in 23 years – by campaigning hard on the notion that voting for UKIP would result in taking votes from the Conservatives in critical constituencies and result in Labour winning the election (or even worse, a minority Labour government at the beck-and-call of the SNP), and that only a Tory government could deliver an referendum on reformed membership of the EU.
However, as much as that strategy worked, it masked the divisions within the party which will likely become increasingly apparent as the referendum gets closer. David Cameron, his Chancellor of the Exchequer (and potential successor) George Osborne, and many others are almost certain to campaign on a vote to keep EU membership – mostly in agreement with business interests which want unabated access to the 500-millon strong common market of the EU, but there are also others – possibly led by London Mayor Boris Johnson (another possible Tory leadership contender) – who may reject the reformed terms and campaign to terminate membership. The current refugee/migrant crisis in continental Europe may tip the balance in favor of leaving the EU because of the EU’s policy of free movement among member states.
David Cameron may hope for a united Tory front on Europe, but this appears increasingly unlikely, and he may find himself campaigning against his own MP’s, and possibly members of the cabinet as well in a referendum campaign. Despite moving to the Right to hold things together, the issue isn’t going away for the Prime Minister, and may result in a fracturing of the Right, as is currently the case with the Left.
In addition, there has been a sense that the Conservatives have become more “metropolitan” by supporting initiatives such as the legalization of same-sex marriage. This was an example of the influence of the Liberal Democrats in the last government, but also of the Tories themselves taking a page out of the New Labour playbook and modernizing to become more acceptable to a wider electorate (and to shake off being the “Nasty Party”). It was no wonder that David Cameron was referred to as the “heir to Blair” among some sections of the press during the early years of his leadership.
Nevertheless, this modernization – among other things – has angered some in the more traditionalist base of the party, and threatened to detail the party’s chances of winning this year. That did not happen, but if there are further ruptures among the different factions of the party and Cameron is unable to contain them, British politics will definitely be a whole new ball game if the center is indeed, unable to hold.
Across the Pond in the United States, politics has not entirely fractured in this way, for we still have tightly-knit two party system between the Democratic and Republican parties. But there are and have been antiestablishment undercurrents in recent years which may have an effect on the trajectory of the parties and American politics.
Among the parallels with politics in the UK, there is a feeling that the government is not doing enough to protect the interests of ordinary people since the onslaught of the financial crisis and Great Recession, and that instead, they serve special interest groups and wealthy campaign contributors to the detriment of everyone else.
As with Britain, the financial crisis prompted the US government – then led by Republican President George W. Bush – to spend vast sums of money bailing out banks that were deemed “too big to fail”. As the economy went into recession and hundreds of jobs were lost, the American public punished the Republicans and elected Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama in 2008 as the nation’s first African-American president, and strengthened his party’s command of both houses of Congress, which meant that for the first time since 1995, all elected parts of the US federal government – both houses of Congress and the White House – were controlled by the Democratic Party.
As Obama and the Democrats went forward on stimulus spending in the hope of helping the economy to recover and not just bailing out financial institutions (mortgage companies, banks, investment houses, insurance companies, etc.), but also the American automobile industry. The President also successfully pushed through health care reform legislation (known popularly and pejoratively as "Obamacare") to achieve nearly universal health insurance coverage for all Americans.
However, there was a backlash against what was seen as too much spending and too much bailing out, particularly on political cronies and interest groups. On the right, the Tea Party movement rose in robust reaction to President Obama’s policies and was embraced by the Republican Party, who were able to ride on a wave of anti-Obama sentiment and wrested control of the House of Representatives – though not the Senate – from the Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections.
Since then, the Republicans have had to contend with the antiestablishment rhetoric being turned on them, for the establishment – for all of their use of bluster and rhetoric against the Democrats – want to get things done and know that in order to do so, they have to work with the Democrats and make compromises. However, the new intake of Republicans has been in no mood to compromise. They believe they were given a strict and solid mandate to oppose Obama’s policies – not least “Obamacare” – and wanted nothing more than to bring the President down to his knees and force him to agree to their demands.
Their opposition to Obama was based on a general and ideological belief in small government, and that Obama’s policies were increasing the size and scope of government beyond what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution. So they therefore saw themselves was standing up for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which would see the federal government shrivel up to something vastly different to what it is now. In addition, there have been – as in the UK – a myriad of social issues that animate religious fundamentalists, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and several Republicans were elected on the basis of opposing those things.
Over time, this has manifested in government shutdowns and threats of government shutdowns as some of the more ideologically-pure Republican members refused to even support their own party’s leadership on passing budgets to fund the government and raising the debt ceiling in the hope that doing so would force Obama’s hand. None of these attempts have really succeeded in doing anything to force the President on a u-turn of his major policies, and have actually hurt the Republicans, as they have been seen as sore losers who did not accept the Obama’s victory in 2008 or his reelection in 2012. In addition, the military ban on openly homosexual soldiers has been lifted, and the Supreme Court has struck down the state-by-state bans on same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, this strain of Republican politics hasn’t gone away, as is obvious by the rise of real-estate developer and celebrity television host Donald Trump, who has successfully tapped into the disillusionment among grassroots Republicans who feel that the party has been inept in confronting Obama and that whole political establishment is rotten to the core. As a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency in next year’s general election, Trump has reignited the flames of the issue of illegal immigration as he has made controversial remarks about immigrants and questioning the long-established legality of birthright citizenship. He has also made a name by showing condescension and contempt for the establishment. In turn, he has shot up in the polls as the unexpected frontrunner for the nomination as a populist straight-talker who is not connected to the Washington establishment or the well-heeled donor class.
The result has been that established figures such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – son and brother of two former presidents – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich are now in single digits in most polling, with Trump and another outsider, Dr. Ben Carson, leading the pack with former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina making a recent surge thanks to an unhappy base within the party that views many in the establishment as just as bad as Obama, if not worse. Some of them had problems with George W. Bush and his brand “compassionate conservatism”, which to them resulted in making government bigger, spending more money, running bigger deficits, and promoting immigration reform with some form of amnesty or pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country – all of which has resulted in the term “RINO’s” (Republicans In Name Only) to describe moderate or liberal Republicans.
Meanwhile on the Democratic side, the landscape is not as fractious or acrimonious, but there are still signs of restlessness towards the establishment in the form of Hillary Clinton.
Like the Labour Party in the UK, the Democratic Party in the US had to moderate from its more left-wing stances to become electable to an electorate that gave two landslide victories to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and another one to George H.W. Bush in 1988. Four years later, Arkansas Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency and won reelection in 1996 as a “New Democrat” who was pro-business, pro-military, and deficit-conscious, while still extolling the virtues of the New Deal (which brought Social Security) and the Great Society (which brought Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights reforms).
But Clinton also got flak from the left flank of his party for signing anti-crime legislation which they claim has resulted in a disproportionate number of poor people and ethnic minorities going to jail and giving America the highest prisoner population among advanced economies. The liberal left has also criticized Clinton-era welfare reforms, which were made as a compromise with the Republican-controlled Congress, and have seen tougher limits on the availability of welfare benefits, which they see go against the spirit of the New Deal and the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. On top of all this was the sense that the Democrats had gotten too close to big money and Wall Street in particular, and also supported the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which were contentious issues as well against the Labour Party in Britain).
Enter Barack Obama, who challenged President Clinton’s wife Hillary, then a US Senator from New York, for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and won on a platform of being antiwar and took on the orthodoxy of the centrist establishment that had been running the party since the Clinton era.
But even under Obama, some of the more strident left wing voices – while applauding him for healthcare reform and overseeing progress on LGBT rights – have criticized him for not doing enough and being too cautious in the White House with regard to poverty (especially in urban areas), taking on the criminal justice system (with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement), gun control (as his presidency has witnessed several mass shootings), more forcefully taking on banks and corporate interests, and doing something about the increasing gap between rich and poor.
Now Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s first Secretary of State, is running again for the nomination, and as a person who is to the right of Obama, some grassroots Democrats looked elsewhere for a candidate who appealed to them.
Enter Bernie Sanders, the independent, self-described “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, who has become a serious contender for the Democratic nomination by running to the left of Clinton (and even Obama) and appealing to those who have felt left out by the more centrist establishment, in a similar fashion that Jeremy Corbyn is doing with regard to the Labour Party in the UK. So far, Clinton is still the prohibitive front-runner for the nomination, and it is expected that most Democrats will support her if she wins. However, there will likely be an expectation that she (or anybody else) takes the party in a more left-wing and “progressive” direction on a variety of issues, and effectively overturn some of the legacy of her husband’s presidency and the steps that Democrats took to become electable on a national basis.
But if the Left in Britain and America wishes to succeed electorally with people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it has a lot to prove in order to win. Most importantly in my opinion, it has to provide a definitive answer to whenever images of 1970’s malaise are shown on both sides of the Atlantic – high interest rates, stagnant economies, back-to-back strikes, energy crises, trash piling in the streets, and etc. There are many people – including members and supporters – who lived during those times and don’t remember them fondly, compared to some on the Left who look back at those days as the golden era of the Post-War Consensus (Keynesian economics, high taxes, high regulations, a generous welfare state, and in the case of Britain – nationalized industries) that had dominated transatlantic politics regardless of party since the end of World War II.
When that consensus started coming undone by forces beyond the control of governments (i.e., globalization, the rise of competitive overseas economies, etc.) and people suffered as a result, the Left had no adequate or credible answer for the electorate, who in response, elected right-leaning governments in the form of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, who had a simple answer: government was the problem, not the solution. They successfully challenged the Post-War Consensus – saying that it resulted in the crises of the 1970’s – and pushed for a new direction of liberalized markets, less regulation, lower taxes, free trade, and shrinking the government in domestic affairs. In the process, they forged a new establishment consensus that has been in place ever since and hardly challenged.
The Left has to challenge that consensus of our time with a credible and sustainable alternative, just as Thatcher and Reagan challenged what was the consensus in their time with something that – for better or worse – has so far outlived both of them, and has (it had to admitted) resulted in overall greater prosperity since the 1970’s on a macroeconomic level.
Corbyn and his supporters believe that there millions of would-be voters who did not turn out last time around because Labour did not distinguish itself enough from the Tories, and that if Labour tapped into those voters and expanded the electorate, Labour will stand a chance to gain power under Corbyn. Leftist Democrats in America believe in the same thing – getting more people out and voting by being more radical and getting away from the center.
However, just as former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said that you have to work with the army you have, not the army you want, political parties of all persuasions have to work with the electorate they have as opposed to the electorate they wish to have. So often, people who say they will vote don’t actually vote – usually because they don’t think their votes will a difference, and even if they believe it can, they are skeptical of the party that offers sweeping change because they don’t believe that change can be delivered.
Now to be fair, Barack Obama did manage to expand the electorate to people you had not voted before by engaging them with an inspiring vision of hope and good change for the future. At the same time however, that vision had to be a realistic one that could be bought into by moderate centrist voters, not least by some people in his own party. By doing this, he was able to assemble a broad coalition of voters which allowed him to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and become a two-term president by winning in the North, South, East, and West.
Some people believe that Obama has changed the trajectory of American politics to the left, and that with America’s demographic changes, the Democrats will be able to offer a more progressive and leftist vision for the country, especially at a time when the Republicans seemingly have a shrinking base and a dilemma on how to move forward in the face of that. Only time will tell.
As for the Labour Party in the UK, it seems destined to take a left turn under Jeremy Corbyn, and the conventional wisdom is that it will not be in government again for another decade because the party has made itself unelectable with people more concerned about ideological purity than obtaining power. On the other hand, Corbyn has said that despite his personal views, he wants to see debate within the party on a variety of issues – making it more about what the membership wants rather than what he wants. So perhaps there can be an opportunity for the Blairites and other moderates within the party to have their say and influence party policy in a way that suits them, but is also agreeable to the rejuvenated left wing elements. Perhaps it is possible that Labour under Corbyn will have an inspiring and realistic vision for the UK that can unite the party and make it electable throughout Britain.
In Scotland, the party faces a particularly difficult dilemma. It was beaten over the head by the SNP during the referendum and general election for “abandoning” its left-wing progressive principles in the pursuit of power, and lost almost everything on the basis of that rhetoric. After all, a common refrain from some former Scottish Labour voters is: “I didn’t leave Labour; Labour left me”, and “I’m not a nationalist; I’m a socialist!” But with the election of Corbyn as UK Labour leader, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that unless Labour quickly becomes a credible alternative to the Tories and win a UK general election, many Scots will conclude that independence is the only way to get a left-wing government.
However, the SNP itself – despite what its most fervent supporters say – is not a socialist party. For the past 15 years or so, it has portrayed itself as a moderate social democratic party that has largely accepted the post-Thatcher consensus – so much so, that it once placed an emphasis on dropping corporate taxes to stimulate economic growth. The Nationalists attracted the support of “Middle Scotland” with popular polices such as the Council Tax freeze and “free” university tuition, and with the “Red Tory” rhetoric, has made inroads into the once dominant Labour areas of Central Scotland. But it has yet to enact anything particularly radical or redistributive with the powers already devolved to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, in which it has an outright majority, and Nicola Sturgeon knows that Scotland is not as radical as has been made out to be, and that the SNP would not be where it is without the support of politically moderate Scots.
Nevertheless, her party has gained traction on the idea that progressive thinking is a hallmark of Scottish politics, while English – or rather “Westminster” – politics can be characterized as reactionary, conservative, and therefore, “un-Scottish”, which again shows the need for breaking up Britain in her world view. Kezia Dugdale, the party’s leader in Scotland (and the eighth in 15 years), knows that up to a third – if not more – of her party’s traditional voters abandoned it during the referendum and general election, and that getting a substantial number of them back will be key for Labour to win power again, both in London and Edinburgh. For this reason, perhaps one benefit from Corbyn is that he may be able to broaden the debate and show that British politics throughout the United Kingdom can be a place for left-wing thought, and that “Westminster” is not a monolithic entity.
At the same time, the Scottish Conservatives – under leader Ruth Davidson – have to find some way of making their party more acceptable to the people of Scotland. Once the dominant party as late as the 1950’s, they went on a gradual decline and then lost all of their MP’s in the Blair landslide of 1997, and have only had one MP since 2001. This was partly due to Margaret Thatcher and some of her more unpopular policies such as the Community Charge (Poll Tax), which was rolled out in Scotland one year before the rest of Britain, and Thatcher – even in death, and having been out of power since 1990 – has been a four-letter word there, and has become a massive liability for her party. The sooner the Scottish Tories can make people seriously think about their policies and what they can do for the people of Scotland (and put Thatcher to one side), the better chance they have of winning.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, having been reduced from over 50 MP’s to only eight at the general election, are now making overtures to moderates in the Labour Party, who may become – if they are not already – disaffected by the leftward tilt of the party, and especially if they are completely shut out of debate and discussion over the party’s future and do not see at least some moderation from the unreconstructed Bennite that is Jeremy Corbyn.
All of this means that more coalition governments may be in store for the UK going forward as more people on the left and right vote for niche parties rather than large “broad-church” parties with various factions. Compromises will still have to be made, though not in the parties, but in government among the parties that form coalitions. This then calls into question the UK’s first past the post (FPTP) electoral system, which worked when the Tories and Labour received over 90% of the vote and the system all but guaranteed one-party governments. But the decline of the two major parties to just 65% of the national popular vote (and with the Tories able to govern the UK with just 36% of it) has prompted debate on the need for electoral reform, which I have written about.
Perhaps this is the new normal, and that the current Tory majority will prove to be a blip in the long-term view of things, and that some form of proportional representation – whether in the Commons or Lords – will be needed. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile in America, our two-party system is still strong, but there are significant forces on the left and right that wish to see the parties move away from the center and take on a more ideological bent. Three months ago, I could have easily predicted that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would be the respective nominee’s of their parties for next year. Now, I genuinely cannot tell what is going to happen.
Indeed, the big political story in America and Britain through the last several months is that the pundits have been proven wrong on so much. Few predicted that the Tories would have an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons in May, nobody gave Jeremy Corbyn a chance at winning the Labour leadership, and the rise of Trump and Sanders was on no one’s radar until recently.
Right now, politics is going to be interesting to watch on both sides of the Atlantic. However, I do hope for what is best for our two countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, and that for all the rhetoric that gets thrown around, the current tide of antiestablishment politics, and the frustrations of people on a variety of issues, people can have a reasonable and civil debate about the future going forward for the benefit of generations to come. Anyone who believes in our hard-fought democratic traditions ought to agree with that, and have faith that the citizenry will make the right decisions in this period of noisy discontent.