Rue, Britannia: a New Era of Political Difficulty and Uncertainty

Conrad Copeland

Rue, Britannia

Last week’s general election in the UK was both highly impactful and destabilising politically.  The governing Conservatives and the Prime Minister called an unforced election in an attempt to strengthen their majority at the expense of an opposition seemingly in disarray and unprepared.  The outcome was in fact the reverse: the government was reduced to a minority position and the opposition parties performed better than expected.  Such a result has profound implications for the political situation in the United Kingdom and in terms of Brexit.  The attempt to have a freer hand to negotiate a Brexit deal with the European Union backfired spectacularly and now the Prime Minister will have to negotiate a hostile parliament while simultaneously pushing for British interests within Europe – a task that would be difficult in the best of circumstances.  Aggravating this are the regional issues brought in to focus by this election: the need for the governing Conservatives to be propped up by a Northern Irish party and the electoral outcome in Scotland both will serve to destabilise the broader political landscape in the country by inflaming and solidifying local tensions.  Theresa May has effectively plunged the UK into an era of political difficulty and uncertainty – the very thing that she was ostensibly trying to prevent.

Brexit Means Brexit

The immediate outcome of Thursday’s election seems to be a significantly reduced Conservative government propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  This government, headed by Theresa May for now, appears in all likelihood to be determined to press forward with Brexit.  This is not entirely shocking given the support for Brexit by both the Tories and the DUP, but there are elements within the Conservative party that may seek to moderate this stance – particularly the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson.  Be that as it may, Article 50 has been triggered and negotiations must start, any U-turn now will likely need to be unanimously endorsed by all remaining EU members, just like any future Brexit deal.  The momentum is still towards Brexit and May has said she plans to push ahead but the Brexit moderates have been emboldened.

Out of this drama an old force may re-emerge.  There have been murmurings of Nigel Farage returning from his semi-retirement to active politics.  Presumably this triumphant return of the messiah is premised on the Conservative Party being too incompetent to handle the Brexit process without his tutelage.  Paul Nuttall, the now-former leader of UKIP, has kindly made an opening for Farage as well.  This resurrection is only going to make the political climate more volatile in an already unstable situation.  Farage’s rhetoric and popular appeal threaten to enflame the Brexit negotiation process and have the potential to push the government, already intent on defending its right-flank, further towards extremist positions on key negotiation issues.  It is certain that Farage will not compromise on his immigration demands and this naturally entails an end to membership in the common market, his efforts will make it more difficult for the government to back-peddle towards a softer, Norway-style Brexit – something that pundits are currently speculating about given the election results.

Compounding this will be the uncertainty around May’s premiership.  The Tories can be masterful at the art of infighting and many are surely looking to seize this opportunity to topple their enemies within the party.  Theresa May will need to be wary of trouble from both sides: the Establishment High Tories who are uncomfortable with her embracing of the hard right and the extreme Brexiteers who wish to take the revolution to its purest conclusion.  This would be a difficult balancing act for any Prime Minister, much less one who also needs to manage a minority government and lost much of her legitimacy in a disastrous unforced election.  Every setback in either the government program or the Brexit negotiations will be a shock to the political system that May’s enemies will delight in playing up as a potential death blow.  The political system and the stability of the government will be under unrelenting assault from ideological enemies both within the governing party and without; and the inherently conflicting pressures in the Tory party, emphasised by the precarious governing situation, will make any news bad news for someone – most probably Theresa May.

This lack of political stability will not directly translate into a lack of economic stability – contrary to Theresa May’s rhetoric during the election there is no reason to believe that the economy will suddenly take a turn for the worse merely because there isn’t a majority government at Westminster.  This is particularly good news for the Tories, considering the situation.  That being said, market volatility will increase.  Markets and traders are notoriously skittish about the concept of ‘confidence’ in an economy.  While the fundamentals of the overall economic situation will not change as a result of this process, the daily ups and downs in the stability of the government and especially the frequent updates on the Brexit negotiations in Brussels will be magnified in the markets.

Rumblings in Ireland

Central to this political instability is the necessity of the DUP for supporting the government’s program.  The great irony of this outcome is that throughout the campaign Theresa May insisted that in order for Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister he would need to seek the support of a small, regionalist party (in his case the Scottish nationalists) and that this would be terrible for the country since the government would be disproportionately beholden to one region alone; now it is May herself that is supported by a small, regionalist party.  The DUP is a relatively unknown force in British politics, like many of the regionally based parties, and Northern Irish parties in particular, they never featured very much in national discussions except insofar as they are conservative and are consistently assumed to be willing to support the Conservative Party.  Now that this has become a reality, it seems prudent to look more closely at the party destined to have a significant impact on the next government.

The Democratic Unionists are a party born out of the political strife of Northern Ireland.  They are conservative: they oppose efforts to extend same-sex marriage and abortion rights to Northern Ireland and support a return of the death penalty; but they are also militantly supportive of the union with Great Britain (the ‘United’ in United Kingdom).  The founder of the DUP was the late Ian Paisley, an evangelical minister and one of the select few who can be directly credited with instigating the conflict that became known as the ‘Troubles’.  On top of this, he and his various political movements directly opposed every single proposal for the peaceful settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict and the DUP in its current form actively campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement, the most recent successful attempt at peace building in the region.

In terms of broader political issues, the party is generally pro-Brexit – it campaigned in tandem with the Leave side in Northern Ireland during the referendum.  Within this pro-Brexit stance, the party holds a curious position: it is in favour of leaving the single market and tighter controls on immigrants, but it also wants to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as ‘soft’ as possible.  These two positions would seem to be fundamentally at odds with each other and it is uncertain which of the two stances the party would favour over the other.  This could make the issue of Brexit even more complex if the party is unwilling or unable to clarify its position, creating a situation in which Theresa May’s supporting party could also be impossible to please.

Their inclusion, however informal, in the government at Westminster is also troubling for the situation in Northern Ireland.  The DUP is not a new political force, it has been central to the local politics in Northern Ireland in recent years and a power-sharing agreement between it and Sinn Fein, the principal pro-Republican party, recently collapsed precipitating an election in Northern Ireland last March.  That election was largely inconclusive, with the DUP and Sinn Fein once again returning as the first and second parties.  More worryingly, there has been no functioning government in Northern Ireland since the election due to the inability of these two parties to agree on a new power-sharing deal.  This crisis had reached an impasse prior to the general election last Thursday and the Northern Irish Secretary had given various deadlines for a deal to be made before Westminster would impose a solution of its own.  The necessity of the support of the DUP for the Tories makes this situation more complicated and potentially aggravates tensions on the island.  Any imposition from Westminster will now be tainted; the DUP will likely seek to pressure the government to favour it in any governing arrangement as a subtle condition of support nationally.  Even if the settlement does not directly favour the DUP it will be easily perceived as doing so.  Compounding this political struggle is the issue of the border in the Brexit negotiations.  Any change from the current arrangement of unrestricted travel, something that is likely if the UK exits the single market, will serve to strengthen the position of Sinn Fein, further destabilise the political situation, and could slowly start the island down the path towards reunification.

“You’ve not seen the last of my bonnets and me”

Across the Irish Sea and north of the River Tweed there were more victories for Unionists.  Much has been made in the English media about the reduction of the Scottish National Party to thirty-five seats from the fifty-six they had won in the previous election.  This collapse in vote has been variously heralded as the end-times for the independence movement, the death knell of the SNP, and the rise of a ‘silent majority’ made up of anti-SNP unionists.  These articulations are, to say the least, mildly hyperbolic.  The SNP did lose a significant number of seats, their campaign has been criticised as ineffective and insensitive to local concerns and these likely played a role in the losses in many constituencies and the unseating of several party grandees.  Similarly, the election itself seemed to have caught the SNP on the back foot on their pledge to hold a second independence referendum after the Brexit process as they ceded much of the debate over this issue and allowed it to be twisted against them, with the expected results.  Regardless of this, the reports of the death of the SNP are greatly exaggerated.

It is necessary to remember that the SNP has never been a historic success in general elections; Scotland has largely followed the trend of voting on different issues at different levels of government.  Even when the SNP was riding high on waves of popular support in local Scottish elections they fared poorly on the national stage.  Prior to the breakthrough in the 2015 election, the high water mark for the SNP nationally was eleven seats at Westminster – a result achieved in 1974.  Three years ago the party only commanded six seats in the House of Commons.  The shock result in 2015 was nigh impossible to maintain, though the losses were greater than anyone had expected.  The context here is important, specifically the shift that has occurred in politics north of the border.  A party that previously held a small minority of the seats in Scotland has managed to not only break through spectacularly in one election, but maintain dominance in the region by holding close to sixty percent of Scottish seats in a subsequent election.  By keeping more than twice the number of seats as their nearest rival the SNP has demonstrated the fundamental restructuring of the Scottish party system; a shift so profound that the regional affiliates of the Labour and Conservative parties are seriously contemplating decoupling themselves from their English cousins to have tighter message control regionally.

The SNP has been able to tap into Scottish disaffection with the powers that be in Westminster and political debates in the country increasingly have strong constitutional undercurrents.  This unionist-nationalist divide was on display in this recent election when the three main unionist parties – the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour – tacitly agreed to not compete against one another in key constituencies.  Such alliances to undermine the SNP will only become more marked as the various parties jockey for limited unionist votes.  Further, if the rumoured decoupling occurs there may even be some temperance on the question of independence and an emergence of various ‘union-lite’ stances in an attempt to broaden the potential voter pool for these parties.

A Significant Scotland

The Scottish nationalists have proven that they are here to stay on the national stage and that they are likely to remain a significant force in Scotland, effectively removing a number of seats from play on the national stage.  Following from this, their presence in Westminster is currently, and will likely stay, more significant than the Liberal Democrats – the traditional third party – allowing them to command a greater prominence in decision making in the near future.  Not winning every seat is not a sign of failure just as not losing every seat is not a sign of success, but the resilience of the SNP in the general election has entrenched them as a leading force in Scottish politics at all levels where once they were simply parochial.

The last piece of the Scottish story is the state of the independence movement.  Needless to say this one election has not settled the constitutional question.  Supporters of independence will emphasise that the SNP is not the same as the independence movement and detractors will point to the prominence of the second referendum in the electoral rhetoric.  Neither argument is complete.  The discussion of a second referendum clearly hurt the SNP in several constituencies, but there were also a number of voters who supported independence but voted for other parties in order to achieve a certain result in Westminster.  The SNP failed to adequately respond to the attacks on their proposal for a second referendum, but the reality is that such a plan was never to be immediately undertaken.  The results of the Brexit process will continue to lead directly to the issue of a second referendum, just as they did before.  The second referendum is an attempt to allow Scots to have a choice on following the UK out of the EU or charting their own course after the final deal was determined and there is no reason to believe such a choice is no longer relevant due to this election.

The result of this general election is the great irony of Theresa May’s political stewardship, far from the ‘strong and stable’ mandate she sought the resulting parliament is fractured and precarious.  The government, while pushing ahead with Brexit, will have an even more difficult time guiding the process in the way it wants and will have little control over the actions of parliament during the process.  The very fact that the government requires the support of the Democratic Unionists is itself troubling and could lead to further problems in Northern Ireland either in the near term or further down the road.  Similarly, the Scottish question is far from resolved; in fact the opposite seems to be the case with the solidification of a new party system in the country and the shift towards a constitutionally-based political discourse seemingly assured.  This election has sown discord and dysfunction in a system that is not well equipped to handle it at a time when the structure is facing multiple tests from multiple directions.  Theresa May has achieved a Pyrrhic victory at a cost that would make Pyrrhus himself blush.