Britain since Brexit: Has Boris Brought Healing?
Two thoughtful essays in the April 2021 TEAM Global newsletter considered how divisions within the United Kingdom might be lessened. Both Mansimar Singh and Kamran Vaishnav outlined how an economic focus, attracting inward investment nationally and addressing regional economic inequalities, could be an act of ‘healing’, addressing Boris Johnson’s words in the essay title; ‘Let the healing begin.’ In the eighteen months since the Conservative election victory, the healing required has broadened as both government and society face familiar challenges and new ones that result from the impact of the Covid pandemic.
I have spent most of that period in India in various forms of lockdown, looking in at British politics. I have also been exploring podcasts (not me alone, podcast audiences have increased significantly during the pandemic period) and will reference them in reflecting on whether Boris Johnson’s prescription – ‘let the healing begin’ – is one that he and his ilk have been prepared to follow. My view is that words come easily to the Prime Minister, but that he is part of a current within British politics that presents a significant challenge to liberal democracy.
Compared to the hyper-partisanship of US politics, it is easy to view British politics as far more benign as the divisive issue of Brexit (whatever one’s view of it) apparently moves to being a diminishing irritant to the body politic. The Covid crisis has not been played out along ideological lines, as was so evidently the case in the USA.
Yet, there seems to be either a concerted or casual attempt to undermine key features of liberal democracy in Britain using division rather than ‘healing’. Fundamental to democracy is the belief that opposition is legitimate and that disagreement does not equate with treachery - ‘loyal opposition’. Parliament embodies this principle: it was this institution that the current Prime Minister tried to close down and silence in 2019. It has long been the case that the executive in Britain has been frustrated by the ability of Parliament to delay or deny: indeed, in an episode of Dan Snow’s History Hit (1), Dr. Robert Saunders points out that the growth of Parliament lay with this very function. All governments wish to dominate Parliament, but they have generally accepted that they need to win an election first and that the it is desirable that as many people should be able to vote as possible.
The current government is working on legislation to making exercising the right to vote more difficult: as in the USA, this is sold by a myth that election fraud is a problem. There is no evidence to support this story. The consequence will be obstacles for the less affluent when elections come around. There is an intolerance of alternative voices. The incumbent Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport apparently interprets his brief as to be a cultural vigilante, calling out institutions that do not conform with the line that he and his ideological companions wish to propagate. Channel 4, whose mandate is to provide a platform for those often not fully represented elsewhere in the world of television, is slated to be sold off to allow commercial priorities to stifle innovation and independence. These are not ‘one nation’ Tories; they reject consensus politics. The constant search for alternative voices to denounce managed to put members of the government on the opposing side to the England football team over racism and a Conservative M.P., Natalie Elphicke, in an unwanted spotlight for being found out for tweeting snide comments about Marcus Rashford. He, of course, has had the temerity to take a position against child poverty that highlight shortcomings in government policy. Criticism, let alone opposition, is treated as threat to be destroyed: ‘loyal opposition’ is not respected.
‘Never Mind the Bar Charts’ (2) might lack some of the production quality of other podcasts, but does provide interesting observations on British politics from a centrist position, hosted by Mark Pack. The authors of ‘Brexitland’, which looks at the social and demographic changes taking place in the UK, are interviewed in separate episodes. From one perspective, these changes would seem to support the assertion of Gareth Southgate, England football manager, that the country is on a trajectory towards ‘a much more tolerant and understanding society’ (‘Dear England’, 8/06/2021). However, another book referenced in the 19/02/2021 episode is ‘Empireland’. Interviewed by Dan Snow on the History Hit, its author, Sathnam Sanghera, uses a phrase that has become mainstream since I left the UK: ‘culture wars’. He contends that, in the face of these changes, there is a move to denigrate the diversity of modern British society. There are familiar noises from previous times which challenge the norms of a pluralist liberal democracy, motivated in part by this concern that society is moving towards Southgate’s vision of the country. Around Brexit, a hostile nationalism used the language of treachery and challenged the right to be different, to be at odds with ‘the people’. Now the COVID Recovery Group, with many familiar figures from the European Reform Group, uses the same strident language, the same hostility to ‘experts’, the same binary version of the world, supported in the print media by columnists who previously supported their anti-EU position. Indeed, within the Covid crisis, they have found opportunities to reprise their favourite anti-EU lines and paint a public health crisis that can only be effectively be resolved through international cooperation as an excuse for nationalist posturing. The paradox is that their claims to be upholding personal liberties carries the intolerance of authoritarianism.
Finding and exploiting quarrels with the EU is not a niche activity of Tory backbenchers. The claim that the government did not realise or intend that the Northern Ireland Protocol would lead to trade disruption within the United Kingdom reflects either sheer incompetence or sheer duplicity. Whilst either is possible with the Prime Minister, the latter seems more likely. He had no intention of keeping to an agreement he signed up to. Boris Johnson, it is said, admires Sir Winston Churchill, or at least a certain version of Churchill, perhaps seeing himself as another leader touched by destiny. He is, however, more redolent of Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), of whom Roy Jenkins asked, ‘Was he ever meant to be a serious statesman?’ (‘The Chancellors’ 1998).
The concept of ‘loyal opposition’ presumes that opposition is loyal, that those who have lost elections hold the government to account and oppose constitutionally. Just because this tradition is so embedded in both the USA and Britain, that is has just been assumed to be accepted, Trump’s denial of the 2020 election outcome and his inflammatory language of rejection was all the more startling. In Britain we have witnessed this disloyal opposition over a hundred years previously. It was this Churchill who claimed, ‘the Orange card would be the one to play’, working with a group of Tories to place the position of Protestants in Ulster as a counter to Gladstone’s Home Rule proposals. The Conservatives were to take up this cause in the years before the First World War to the point where they threatened the elected government with mutiny in the army and paramilitary violence, as Michael Portillo explores in ‘1913: the Year Before’, BBC Sounds (3).
Whilst the Conservatives were to walk away from Irish Unionism once the flames of Irish republicanism had been fanned, Northern Ireland did emerge from the ensuing crisis in 1921. One hundred years later, a Conservative government of the United Kingdom seems ready to test the resilience of that constitutional arrangement with its post-Brexit EU policy, injecting vitriol rather than projecting healing. Within British politics and society, a similar short-termism shaped by a perception of political opportunity and desire for political office, means that within government there would appear little appetite for ‘healing’ and the compromise that requires when division still offers political dividends. Most people in their everyday lives have a limited appetite for conflict, particularly partisan conflict, but this majority does not have its hands on the levers of political power.
1) Dan Snow’s History Hit: https://www.historyhit.com/podcasts/
10/02/2021: Empire with Sathnam Sanghera
25/07/2021: What is going on with democracy?
2) Never Mind the Bar Charts: https://www.nevermindthebarcharts.com/
2/10/2020: Culture wars, Brexit and electoral reform
3) 1913: The Year Before: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02qd1tp
The Irish Question