Essay Competition 2020 - 2nd Place
Following the 2019 Election, Boris Johnson Urged “Let the Healing Begin”. What do you Suggest Could be Done to Bring this About?
Second Prize was awarded to Kamran Vaishnev
In December 2019, Boris Johnson’s Conservative party won a landslide election. After two years of a minority government propped up by a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Conservatives won 365 seats around the country, and finally earned the large majority that they have been waiting for since Thatcher.
On the other hand, Labour had its worst result in 80 years. The “crumbling” of Labour’s red wall was the most significant result of this election. Constituencies such as Workington and Bolsover, which have been Labour strongholds for decades, had finally flipped to the Conservatives. This represents a clear shift in the nature of UK politics, and will impact the actions of parties and elections for years to come.
What is broken?
After the election, Boris Johnson urged to “let the healing begin”. However, for something to be healed, it must be broken first. The greatest political issue that shaped politics in the past 5 years was to do with Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The leaderships of both the Labour and the Conservatives were in favour of remaining within the European Union. Despite this, there were dissenters in the Conservative party. After Cameron suspended Collective Cabinet Responsibility for the referendum, six members of the cabinet joined the leave campaign, including Boris Johnson, at the time the Mayor of London. Along with them, 138 MPs from the Conservative party were in support of leaving the EU (“EU vote: Where the cabinet and other MPs stand”, 2016). The battle lines had been drawn, and Brexit was not a party issue in the traditional sense. It had split the Conservatives right down the middle.
This is the first issue that Boris Johnson was implying when he urged to “let the healing begin”. His very own party had spent years struggling from internal conflicts between remain and leave supporters. Now that the public had backed his mandate to leave the EU, there was no room for doubt anymore, and the internal conflict can be reduced, hopefully to “heal” the party.
The result from this referendum led the path to years of political turmoil. With three Prime Ministers and three elections within five years, and two landmark cases of the Supreme Court asserting its power by overruling a government decision, to say that the last few years in politics may have been some of the most hectic ever in British history would be an understatement.
This is the second thing that Boris Johnson had meant when he said “let the healing begin”. UK politics had been far messier than normal since the referendum. Some may even call it “broken”. A sense of normality that had existed before this short period of history would be welcoming to many.
Neoliberalism and the North-South divide in the UK
Neoliberalism can be defined as the thought process that the government is unable to create the same level of economic growth and social welfare compared to an unhindered market. In essence, a smaller government is better for everyone, even the poorest in society, because the free market itself improves standard of living and welfare (Bockman, 2013).
This economic theory is one that has been deeply ingrained in UK politics. The policies first gained attention in the 1970s and were implemented by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Most importantly, the fundamentals continued through Blair’s New Labour government and the Conservative-Liberal coalition, making them firmly apart of modern-day life in the United Kingdom.
However, these policies directly benefited the “South” of the UK compared to the “North”. During these times, the impacts of deindustrialisation, cuts to nationalised industries, and cuts to the powers of trade unions were concentrated in the “North”, leading to large job losses and a suffering standard of living. At the same time the support given to the financial industries to replace the manufacturing ones directly benefitted the “South”, as well as receiving the majority of the infrastructure investment (Hudson, 2013).
One of the most significant metrics as to which side of the referendum that the public voted on was location. The remain support was firmly in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, whilst the leave support was in the rest of England and Wales. Whilst there may be some anomalies, the majority of places in these areas voted in this way.
It is no coincidence that the areas of the UK that suffered most from neoliberalism policies implemented by Thatcher and maintained since then were the ones to vote leave in the referendum. Areas of the country which have been consistently neglected by the government for the past 30 years would have been much more open to a radical change such as leaving the EU.
As well as this, key issues such as immigration were much less likely to be supported by leave voters. Before the referendum, only 29% of leave voters believed that immigration was good for the economy, compared to 46% of remain voters (The Migration Observatory, 2020). It is an easy scapegoat to blame, as a rise in immigration has been mirrored by a worsening of economic conditions in these areas, leading people in these areas to naturally be against immigration and hence the EU.
The key exception to this is Scotland. Despite being treated very poorly by the Thatcher administration (e.g. in the early implementation of the poll tax), they supported remain in the referendum. However, this may be due to the fact that Scotland has always had generous spending allocated towards them by the Barnett formula, such as in 2015-2016 116.1% of the UK average per head (HM Treasury, 2019).
This is the more fundamental issue that is in UK politics. Brexit may have been caused by this, but at a basic level the neoliberalist policies that have existed since the 1980s have created a divide between the “North” and the “South” of the country. This was the third and most important issue that Boris Johnson was claiming that needed healing.
What can done to fix these issues?
The first step to fixing the first two issues is to return to a sense of normality. For decades and decades, there had been clear majority governments, but over the past decade there was 8 years with no clear and strong government or mandates. The Conservatives new large majority and strong mandate will automatically help to stem the bleeding within parties and start a new wave of a less divided government and a more stable political system.
The third issue however is much more complicated, and has its roots deep within the history of the UK. However, the first step that could be taken is to look at the past. Before neoliberalism took over the Conservative party in the 1980s, the most popular basic theory was One-Nation Conservatism. This was based of view that that the ruling class had an obligation to look out for the lower classes. There should not be two nations, one for the rich and one for the poor.
Whilst not exactly the same as the current divide that the UK faces, it rings close to the basic ideas, that the UK has become two nations separated from each other based on economic issues. A return to the pre-1980s Conservatives, who were in support of a large welfare state designed to benefit the ordinary person, may be the solution, as now that the “South” has benefitted from the support that was given to them in the past, they should pass it back and help the “North” to develop to reunify the country. After all, Boris Johnson claims to be a One-Nation Conservative (Parker, 2014).
In reality, this would take the form of policies such as increased infrastructure investment in the North. The results of the 2019 election lead right into this. Boris Johnson won his majority off the back of Northern constituencies taken from Labour, and he must work to keep these constituencies if he hopes to win the next election. This has been reflected in the 2020 budget, being one of the most generous in years, and with clauses such as Universities outside of the South East gaining the majority of an extra £400m R&D funding, directly helping the North (“Summary of Budget 2020: Key points at-a-glance”, 2020).
To conclude, Boris Johnson urging the country to let the healing begin had a multitude of meanings and solutions. The most important of these is to begin to reduce the divide that was worsened by neoliberals in the 1980s and beyond, and become one country again. One solution, and the one that was chosen by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, was to go back to its roots in One-Nation Conservatism to help to invest in the parts of the country that had been neglected over the past 40 years.
 “EU vote: Where the cabinet and other MPs stand” (2016) BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35616946
 Hudson, R. (2013). Thatcherism and its geographical legacies: The new map of socio-spatial inequality in the Divided Kingdom. The Geographical Journal, 179(4), 377-381.
 Bockman, J. (2013). Neoliberalism. Contexts, 12(3), 14-15.
 The Migration Observatory (2020) “UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern”. [Data Set] Retrieved from: https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/uk-public-opinion-toward-immigration-overall-attitudes-and-level-of-concern/
 HM Treasury (2019) “HMT Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses (PESA)”. [Data Set] Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/public-expenditure-statistical-analyses-pesa
 Parker, G (2014) "Boris Johnson aims to win back voters as 'One Nation Tory’” Financial Times London.
 “Summary of Budget 2020: Key points at-a-glance” (2016) BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51832634
Queen Elizabeth School, Barnet