Inside Story

Britain with and against itself

A dizzying election campaign, split this time by terror attacks, might be part of a new political normal

David Hayes 5 June 2017 2926 words

A “change” election? Home secretary Amber Rudd (left), Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arrive for the BBC Election Debate at Cambridge University last Wednesday. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait.” In a way unforeseen in the distant age of seven weeks ago, when the contest began, the outcome of Britain’s general election on 8 June is producing acute suspense and – pace Laura (Riding) Jackson’s cryptic thought – for what it reveals of the country’s temper as much as for its choice of leader.

That temper is also being probed by the further terrorist attack on civilians late on Saturday evening, in which seven were killed and forty-eight wounded. The incident follows the Manchester Arena bombing twelve days earlier, in which twenty-two pop fans died, and the similar Westminster Bridge attack on 22 March, when one man used a car to kill five passers-by then plunged a knife into a police guard at the entrance to parliament. These concerted assaults – the aim deliberate, the victims random – highlight the continuing danger from violent jihadis wielding multiple instruments against what Islamic State calls “crusader-civilians.”

In this respect, London’s latest trauma echoes the marauding assault in Mumbai in 2008, Paris’s Bataclan massacre in 2015, and even the July 2016 raid on a Dhaka bakery, when international NGO workers were among the twenty-two civilians gruesomely killed. Much is different, including the weaponry and death toll, but there is a link in the targeting of youthful, gender-mixed, life-affirming cosmopolitan locations.

The terrorists also want to undermine generous social sympathies among groups most likely to harbour them, so that they can pose as true defenders of “the Muslims.” The perpetrators may be in many cases lost boys, and increasingly girls. But this is a racist, supremacist, nihilist, conspiracist and genocidal ideology in action.

Whether the two most recent irruptions are intended to influence Britain’s election is not clear. If so, a further comparison might be with the 11–M massacre in Madrid in 2004, though the result two days later – a socialist defeat of the incumbent conservatives, who had supported the invasion of Iraq – was defiant. At this stage, the double shock has had no perceptible impact on policy debate, on party or leadership ratings, or even on the tone of the campaign. People, it seems, are ready to file these respective big dramas into separate compartments.

Could they yet merge? Theresa May’s latest pronouncement outside 10 Downing Street, on Sunday morning, ventured a shift of emphasis towards more robust policy on domestic extremism: “We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are.” The language has traces of Tony Blair’s (“the rules of the game have changed”) after the London attacks of 2005. But those took place two months after his third election win. May’s summons – “we must come together” to defeat a “single, evil ideology” by way of “pluralistic, British values” – is being issued near the end of her first, disastrous campaign as party leader, and cannot but be seen partly in that light.

Public decency generally resists what was called, during Northern Ireland’s thirty-year conflict, “the politics of the last atrocity.” And any electoral currents are almost sure to interweave. For every person inclined to hug nurse’s security blanket, another might reckon that standing against fear entails a contrary vote. So far, urban England’s unruffled poise – fusing inheritance, nurture, guts, sociability and therapy – has braved the demons. But in the last seventy-two hours of a remarkable campaign, from Monday to Wednesday, politicians and their media backers will be hard at work, trying to arouse or massage them.

In fact, this already started to happen late on Sunday, when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reiterated criticism of May over cuts to police resources when she was home secretary for six years from 2010. In response, the Tories are bound to itemise Corbyn’s record on security matters, though such efforts have so far failed either to penetrate his evasive defences or provoke much voter attention.

The election suspense had reached a new pitch minutes before Saturday’s events made the topic superfluous, at least for the next twenty-four hours. The momentum of the campaign had been such as to raise the tantalising question of whether this might after all be a “change” election on the pattern of the three since 1945: Clement Attlee’s for Labour in that year, Margaret Thatcher’s for the Conservatives in 1979, and Tony Blair’s for (“New”) Labour in 1997.

The growing prospect, it seemed, was that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, so long derided (not least in several of my previous Inside Story contributions from London), might cause a sensational upset by denying Theresa May’s Conservatives a majority, or equally by running her so close as to destroy her authority while definitively securing his own at the head of a fractious party.

Even if that mind-bending possibility turns out to be a chimera, the emotional whirl of these weeks – which owes much to, yet goes wider than, veering opinion surveys – is a psychosocial fact that would still deserve study after the votes are counted and tears dried. Many observers have described the election as odd, strange or peculiar, though my favourite coinage is that of the veteran Channel 4 News journalist Jon Snow, all the more for its matter-of-fact delivery: “a bloody shambles.” But what if this perceived wackiness is just one face of a new political normal, the hall of distorting mirrors that Britain now inhabits?

Three days before polling stations open, the prosaic elements of the carousel can be simply outlined. The election was heralded by the prime minister on 18 April, with no warning or (outside her tight circle) consultation. Theresa May had succeeded David Cameron in the top job a year earlier following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, via an internal Conservative Party tussle. The decision meant reversing her many assurances that she had no plans to go to the country before the scheduled date of 2020, which would in any case require an exemption under the 2011 law prescribing five-year parliaments.

But the political logic was compelling. Her Tories were more than 20 per cent ahead of Labour in many polls, while May’s own positive ratings outshone Jeremy Corbyn’s sunken ones. And her lack of a popular mandate had been a regular theme of opposition attacks. A clear victory on 8 June would scatter her domestic adversaries, all the better to confront her continental ones: translating her modest parliamentary hegemony into a thumping one, while elevating her to national commander in the soon-to-begin two years of negotiations with the EU over the terms of Brexit.

The plan has worked out, it might be said, “not necessarily to Theresa May’s advantage.” The Conservatives have fought a lacklustre, thoughtless and misdirected campaign punctuated by repeated missteps over their manifesto, policies on social care, inconsistent tax messages and unpopular signals on (of all things) fox-hunting. The tension between May’s own quasi-presidential style and the repetitive vacuity of her message to voters has damaged her. Beside a more coherent Labour effort that played to Corbyn’s strengths – involving cheery activist gatherings and bounteous promises to likely supporters – the impact on the Tories has been corrosive.

Evidence comes in the party’s declining poll figures (though it must be said that great statistical variation, and consequent doubts over survey methods and data, have made polling itself one of the campaign’s most debated themes). On Wednesday, a constituency-based model by YouGov configured a hung parliament. Then, a polling cascade late on Saturday evening – the ninth and last of them published minutes before news of the London attacks began to come through – showed Tory leads of up to 12 per cent, but a majority at 6 per cent or lower. Survation’s poll had the parties at 40–39 per cent.

May’s ratings had also turned negative for the first time as prime minister, while Corbyn’s continued to edge upward. The great imponderable was voters in the eighteen-to-twenty-four bracket. Around 68 per cent of them were reportedly in the Corbyn camp, but would they turn out in sufficient numbers? If the answer was yes, this might be the tipping point of a historic breakthrough.

Most detailed studies, incorporating regional patterns of voting (including the council elections in March, which augured a big Tory win), still conclude that the Conservatives are clear favourites, and likely to extend their working majority of seventeen (and lead of 101 over Labour) in the House of Commons. The challenge for Corbyn is steep: his predecessor Ed Miliband would have needed a 4.6 per cent swing in 2015 to gain a majority of one; his equivalent is 8.7 per cent.

But the anti-establishment precedent of the Brexit plebiscite in 2016, the 45 per cent vote for Scotland’s independence in the 2014 referendum – and, indeed, the insurgency that propelled the veteran far-leftist Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015 – are among the events weighing heavily on proponents of today’s status quo. “[If] the last three years have taught us anything,” writes the Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson, “they’ve taught us this: nothing, in politics, is so crazy that it couldn’t actually happen.”

An awful campaign and incremental polling fall, crowned by May’s anti-Midas touch, reinforce the Tories’ vertiginous mood and Labour supporters’ roiling one. In a longer perspective, Corbynites who take seriously their party’s ambitions to create a new economic model look for inspiration to 1945 and a 1979-in-reverse. Exorcising their ogre, Margaret Thatcher, would be history’s ultimate revenge. But how do the later of these three “change” elections look in the retrospect of four decades?

James Callaghan was present when the phenomenon first struck. In fact, he can be credited with identifying it. During the 1979 election campaign, the Labour prime minister was in ruminative mood while on the road with his chief adviser Bernard Donoghue, who recorded Callaghan’s observation in a diary:

You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.

Sad vindication came on 3 May, when the naval officer’s son from Cardiff was ousted by the grocer’s daughter from Grantham on a two-party swing of 5.2 per cent, the largest since 1945. (Labour won 36.9 per cent of the vote, the Tories 43.9 per cent.) Margaret Thatcher’s reign of eleven and a half years, consolidated by two more big wins at four-year intervals, stamped her resolute character on the United Kingdom as the avuncular Callaghan – beset by a tiny majority, party division, and economic troubles – had been unable to do in his four and a half.

Life began to speed up in the 1980s, so it was two rather than three decades until the next sea-change, when Tony Blair swept to victory at the head of New Labour on 1 May 1997 on an off-the-scale swing of 10.2 per cent. “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” the toothy leader ad-libbed to bussed-in supporters at Downing Street waving miniature Union Jack flags. Rudimentary as the scene was by later standards, its elements – patriotic symbolism, visual nous, media management, a language combining uplift and reassurance – aligned with a public ready, after eighteen years of Conservative government, to give Blair’s party a chance.

Blair’s fate echoed Thatcher’s: two more victories against enfeebled opposition, though with a more diminished vote share in his case, before intra-party pressures and a wider time-for-a-change mood enforced his resignation. Gordon Brown’s failure at the next election, in 2010, meant that Labour’s hegemony (the “New,” never formally added to the party’s name, having been quietly discarded) had lasted only thirteen years. Too early, surely, for another sea-change – but then could “the great acceleration” identified in Robert Colville’s incisive study also be vaporising politics’ own deep rhythms?

The inconclusive 2010 result, which produced a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, left the matter open, at least as far as Westminster went. But Westminster, thanks to Blair’s “devolution,” which set up a parliament in Scotland and assemblies in Wales, Northern Ireland and London itself, now did not go as far as it had. Many more rhythms existed, and some were going haywire. A too-close-for-comfort “no” to independence in Scotland in 2014 was followed by a surge of new members into the Scottish National Party, or SNP, which then destroyed Labour’s historical bastions by seizing all but one of the country’s fifty-six seats in the UK-wide election in 2015.

The Conservatives, helped by ruthless targeting of Lib Dem seats in England, simultaneously won a slim working majority in the House of Commons on 36.9 per cent of the vote. The two-party swing with Labour, just 0.35 per cent in their favour, was this time near irrelevant: the UK’s electoral canvas had turned in a generation from Piet Mondrian to Jackson Pollock. By that measure, David Cameron’s remarkable victory, confounding as it did expectations of another hung parliament, was but a powerful splatter.

And then came Brexit. The Italo-French phrase “never two without three” seems appropriate. The UK that had survived in 2014 and renewed its premier’s mandate in 2015 voted in 2016 to sunder links with its closest trading and political partners. The impact of this anti-establishment and predominantly English revolt will surely match, if not exceed, that of the Thatcher and Blair moments four and two decades before. If anything, the Brexit sea-change beats them all. Could this election register another “shift in what the public wants and what it approves of”?

Britain’s fragmented electoral geography adds to the suspense. The SNP’s decade-long incumbency north of the border makes the pro-independence party the establishment, so burgeoning discontent must find new channels. Scotland’s long moribund Conservatives are now harvesting the fruits of a revival under their dynamic leader Ruth Davidson, while Labour’s downhill slide from its once dominant position may be stabilising under the gallant Kezia Dugdale. Both these opposition parties are exploiting the SNP’s fragile record on education and health, as well as the impaired image of first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her party, to press home their claim to at least a handful of seats – and SNP scalps.

Those Scottish trends are paralleled in Wales, where both Labour and the Conservatives are doing relatively well in recent polls. They indicate something of a centripetal moment in Britain. (Northern Ireland, where the politics of Brexit are felt with urgency and at this stage open renewed space for pan-Ireland arguments, is on another trajectory.) A combined Conservative–Labour vote, nearing 80 per cent in most polls, suggests a certain reconsolidation of the UK’s historical two-party rivalry. It last exceeded even 70 per cent in 2001, itself a long descent from 96.8 per cent in 1951. The two giants are clearly helped by UKIP’s decline, having won the day after Brexit, and the apparent stasis of the uncritically pro-EU Liberal Democrats.

Beyond these flows, and for all the wealth of data, much about this election is still unsure. The same was true at the time of another “vote in the dark” in Britain, two years and an aeon ago. On the eve, I quoted haunting advice given to and shared by the Irish Times’s Simon Carswell when he began his stint as the paper’s Washington correspondent: “Try to explain American politics in a way that your readers will not be completely shocked if a Republican wins.”

In the same spirit, it seems fitting this time to cite an observation of the Sunday Independent’s Eilis O’Hanlon, who has taken a break from forensic analysis of Ireland’s Sinn Féin to write a fine overview of her neighbours’ election.

Pointing out what no British journalist might think of doing, that Harold Wilson, “the last Labour leader to become prime minister” apart from Tony Blair, was born “one month before the Easter Rising” in 1916, O’Hanlon writes: “If [a populist left] revolution is indeed about to happen on the other side of the Irish Sea, it stands in stark opposition to everything we thought we knew about British politics.”

Amen to those words. Yet the last three years in Britain show how disruptive are these times. If this is a new political normal, why not that disruptive? The story to be told about us awaits its telling. •