I’m still processing the UK election results. I wrote something yesterday and then trashed the post. I’m writing again from scratch.
My first observation is that while the results are heart achingly bad, they aren’t surprising. Of course it is very easy to say ‘I expected this’ after the fact but I wasn’t going to assert prior to the vote that the Tories would win despite their manifest incompetence as that would help nobody.
Should they have lost? Absolutely. Aside from a record of bad policies over multiple Prime Ministers, the Conservatives have even lost their veneer of competence. They are a broken party and Johnson is one of the least capable people to be in the role of Prime Minister since World War 1 (and I only stop there because my sense of who was PM when gets very hazy prior to that). By the very basic standard of whether there might still be meaningfully a ‘United Kingdom’ by the end of his tenure of PM, he has already deeply damaged Britain as a concept. Which helps mark out what his victory is and means — it is a victory for a particularly toxic and racist English nationalism.
The corollary of the victory of English nationalism (better symbolised by the odious Nigel Farage than Boris Johnson) is the increasingly plausible outcome of an independent Scotland and a united Ireland. Scotland also points the way to ‘nationalism’ in a different sense. Scottish people aren’t magical (despite the cartoons I’m watching) and are just as capable of bigotry and short-sighted thinking as the people south of the border but Scotland’s own very different concept of national identity as enabled the country to remain immune from the worst aspects of the divisions that have gripped England.
So why did I think the Tories would win? A few inter-related things but the common element is Brexit. There is obviously a lot to discuss about Labour, Corbyn, the Liberal-Democrats and how Remain campaigns stuffed up in various ways but I honestly think these all amount to a discussion how a very, very narrow path to a substantial Tory defeat was not met.
The predominate feature was the chaos around Brexit both in parliament and as a source of social division. Years now of wrangling around Brexit has only resulted in a political stalemate. It was that stalemate that resulted in two general elections, the first of which failed to improve the situation. That circumstance set up a situation where several things are in play:
- The sunk cost fallacy. A huge amount of time, money and emotional energy has already been invested in the Brexit debate. That biases people towards seeing not enacting Brexit as a waste. This is fallacious reasoning but it is a very powerful kind of cognitive error, one that will incline people to ignore or repress the more obvious doubts they may now have about the wisdom of Brexit.
- The problem of coordinated action. There are many reasons to oppose Boris Johnson and the conservatives but with multiple positions and opposing views beyond the Conservative Party there was no clear, simple alternative position.
- Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats had a way of making Brexit magically vanish. That’s part of what is so poisonous to public discourse about Brexit as an issue. Jeremy Corbyn’s compromise policy of offereing a new deal that would be ratified by a second referendum was credible but by its nature it was a policy that would prolong the pain. A more assertive Remain policy would be more promising but that also would not end the pain UNLESS there was a massive and unambiguous vote for staying in the EU. A small-majority or a coalition government hoping to end Brexit would be facing a very politically determined opposition. Which takes me to the last point.
- Bullying works. People know who the scary, less than rational group is in the Brexit debate and it is the pro-Brexit side. There is a disturbing result in game theory were an apparent loss of rationality is a rational manoeuvre. If one side cannot be reasoned with, that can (in some circumstances) place the more rational side at a disadvantage in a negotiation. In this circumstances people know that the pro-Brexit politicians weren’t going to stop if Labour won, or if (somehow) the Lib-Dems had won or if a Lib-Lab coalition had won or if Parliament had completely realigned to form a Remain Government of National Unity. We are back to the situation of were only a massive Remain victory to the point of utter humiliation would bring the poisonous debate to an end.
In these circumstances, it becomes clearer what a dithering voter might do. The clearest route and the route that it is easiest to enact as an isolated voter at the ballot box is to hope that they only way out of the Brexit chaos is to push through. It is also self-destructive ‘madness’ and rewards the very people who created the mess but illustrates something we know about fascism in general. Fascism feeds on chaos by creating a climate of turmoil and offering authoritarian control as the antidote. It’s a poison that markets itself as the cure for the symptoms it creates.
Am I saying Boris Johnson is a fascist? Meh. That’s not my point. He’s not-not a fascist but no, his core ideology is “cynical opportunist” and I very much doubt there is anything much deeper than that going on in there. However, that hardly matters. It’s not the inner personal qualities or personal ideological commitments of Boris Johnson that are in play but the policies and program he has committed Britain to. His personal route to political power as a jolly oaf was never going to get him any further than Mayor of Greater London. His political success since has been via exploiting English nationalism, racism and xenophobia and doing so has kept paying off for him again and again. He’s hardly going to stop now that using the dark-arts of appealing to the worst aspects of English culture has delivered him a substantial parliamentary majority. Nor will he be able to pivot back to the centre because the fundamental problems with Brexit are still there and when/if the UK leaves the union those deep issues will only get worse. Boris’s problems are only just beginning and he has only one move that has worked for him: double down on the racism.
Well, that’s not a very happy account. I’ll concede that I’m writing from a long way away and from all the frustration and fear that entails. I was hoping to think of something more positive or at least hopeful to people in Britain. I’m sorry but I don’t have anything. This will be hard and it is on top of years now of misrule and hardship. It will be especially hard (and often needlessly cruel) to so many different groups of people in Britain.