The Powerlessness of Power: Politics in Britain Today

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Twelve months after the Brexit plebiscite, and two weeks after the general election, British politics has no direction, no sense of purpose, and no commanding personalities. The classic institutions of the state—the civil service, big business, the media, the professions, the intellectuals, the trade unions, the churches, the very people themselves—feel powerless and unable to control what is happening and where Britain should go.

Normally in a democracy, a national election such as produced a President Trump or a President Macron would answer the question. But Britain has had four major elections in under four years—two referendums on Scotland and on Europe, and two general elections—and no one in the nation knows what the people want.

It does mean, however, that there will be no early rush to a new election. I have met with Tory peers and members of parliament, and they are quite clear that they will not support any early election.

The Conservatives have a strong majority over Labour, with 318 MPs compared with Labour’s 261. Although Labour gained some seats, it also lost some. In Labour’s 1992 election loss, for example, leader Neil Kinnock won more seats than Jeremy Corbyn did for Labour in 2017.

The Scottish Nationalists (SNP) are the third-biggest party and will not want the adventure of an early election, having lost badly on June 8, including the ousting of Alex Salmond, their own historic party leader, as well as Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP MPs in the House of Commons.

Northern Irish Protestant MPs, nearly all in the anti-Republic, anti-Catholic Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), will not want to risk another election in which their arch-enemy, Sinn Fein, may continue to do well.

So the parliamentary arithmetic is not there for an early election, despite the claims from Labour that they can defeat Theresa May in the Commons. She can probably rely in the ten DUP MPs, which gives her a nominal total of 328 seats—a small but perfectly workable majority in the House of Commons.

The immediate future is for no new laws—just transposition of E.U. legislation. May has dropped from her program all controversial measures, especially those contained in the party manifesto that angered Tory MPs and cost some seats and the party its majority.

But there is nothing to vote against if you are a Tory or DUP MP. And no Tory is going to make common cause with Labour’s Corbyn, a man they despise as a Hugo Chavez leftist. Nor will Tories ally with the SNP, since the Conservatives did well in Scotland in the election, and believe they can turn back the tide of nationalism and the threat to the unity of the United Kingdom.

So the main legislative program of 2017 to 2019 will focus on converting into U.K. laws aspects of current E.U. legal provisions—a necessary precondition for Brexit. Because these are constitutional provisions, they have to be dealt with by the House of Commons as a whole, and not sent away to committees.

Suffice it to say this allows any MP to propose amendments, filibuster, or demand votes, with all this being repeated in the House of Lords where there is a strong majority that favors remaining in the European Union.

On some issues, I would expect anti-Brexit MPs in all parties to make common cause and stop a measure or amend it in a pro-European way. It will then be up to May and her cabinet to accept that vote or try and defeat it. However, she has the ability to control floor business, to withdraw proposals, and in the end to accept defeat and avoid moving to a vote of confidence, which in any event she would be likely to win.

But all this will make for an unstable, confused two years of parliamentary business. There will be little opportunity for business or other outside bodies to lobby effectively or to try to shape legislation.

If there is little chance of an early election, there is also little chance of May staying on as prime minister to lead the Tories at the next election. I am astonished at the level of personal venom and contempt I hear in private discussions with Tories about her.

Normally, the Conservative Party controls itself and does not show its personal feelings about its leader. This is no longer the case. They despise her.

But they have no alternative. To hold a leadership contest now would be to expose the deep divisions within the party. It is too simplistic to describe the divide as pro-E.U. or pro-Brexit. Since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, the Tories have been an American party. No longer with Trump.

The long reign of Thatcher neoliberalism is over. Britain under all its last six prime ministers (four Conservative, two Labour) has been pro-business, pro-rich, pro-accumulation, with much of the population left behind.

Average workers have not had a pay raise for ten years. No new social housing has been built for 30 years. The poor are put into giant tower blocks that turn into blazing infernos.

Three million Eastern and Mediterranean Europeans have arrived in just a few years, and the number of Muslim immigrants keep rising. This puts big pressure on public services, social cohesion, and a common British sense of belonging, citizenship, and identity.

There are 20,000 fewer police on the streets than in 2010. Hospitals are under pressure. It is harder to get to see a doctor (I speak from recent personal experience!). The armed services have been cut. Islamist recruitment and propaganda continues.

The Brexit and election votes were—in part—an uprising of the forgotten and those who have not benefited from globalization and modern economic practices.

The Tory MPs are very conscious of this, but so far there is no Tory MP who seems able to articulate a new vision of what needs to be done. The Tories have no Merkel, no Rajoy, no Reagan. So until someone emerges, they may stick with May. Ordinary MPs like weak government and a prime minister who has to listen to them. They have the power and the government is powerless.

This will make for a weak and unstable government unable to make decisions to control the deficit or have proper investment and legislative priorities.

Labour under Corbyn will be more confident. His Bernie Sanders leftism is a way of being cheered, but it is not a program for government or for winning a majority.

Labour, as in the 1950s and 1980s, has some way to go to becoming a credible alternative government. There is now a major revolt of 50 Labour MPs, MEPs, and peers who have signed a statement in favor of the single market and customs union, and the internal management of immigration, rather than with work- or residence-permit bureaucracy or regional and seasonal quotas.

A major Labour donor, Lord Sainsbury (of the supermarket family) has just cut his funding for a Blairite organization called Progress which articulated Macron-type centrist Labour ideas.

The Labour party has lost its third election in seven years, and while Corbyn has saved his personal honor and undoubtedly been seen as the winner of the election by comparison with May, he is not widely seen as a future prime minister. Labour will see new divisions, personality clashes, and efforts by Trotskyist and other demagogues to gain more control over the party. So this means Labour also faces a period of uncertainty, like the Conservatives.

The first day of Brexit negotiations on June 19 signaled that until there is an answer to the Brexit question there cannot be an answer to the question of British politics. E.U. leaders dismissed out of hand May’s clumsy and poorly thought-out proposals on E.U. citizens in the U.K., and there will be far more contentious issues to come.

The outlook for British politics is one of confusion, lack of leadership, and barely hidden divisions and hatreds. The next two years will be probably the unhappiest and least coherent 24 months in British politics since the end of World War II.

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