Leaving partisan politics aside – and ignoring Jeremy Corbyn’s sensational election campaign for a moment – it has to be said that Britain is now really up shit creek. The clock is ticking on its Article 50 exit. Triggering article 50 at the end of March before seeking an electoral blank cheque must have seemed a good idea at the time. (The article 50s decision was a dogwhistle to Ukip voters meant to show the Tories were keeping their Brexit promises.) But the sequence has proven to be a colossal bungle by the accursed Theresa May. Who knew that the election wouldn’t be about Brexit, but about Briatin’s decaying social services?
May lost her majority, fatally weakened her mandate and – by her wretched performance on the campaign trail – drove Ukip voters straight back into the arms of Labour. As the Observer pointed out, two successive Tory Prime Ministers in the past 12 months have put Britain’s future at risk for their own party political advantage – and both times that gamble has failed, while damaging the country seriously in the process.
It keeps on getting worse. On Saturday night May claimed to have clinched a confidence and supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – who almost instantly humiliated her by saying that the talks were ongoing, and could last well into the coming week.
It is quite hard to see that the DUP can extract anything substantial from May as the price of giving her their support on confidence and supply. Winning from her a promise not to hold a referendum on Irish unity and/or a promise to keep the Irish border open post Brexit, both seem like puny ‘victories.’ With good reason, many have decried the anti gay, anti-abortion Christian conservatism of the DUP, but this is probably a phantom concern. Any legislative attacks on gays and abortion by the DUP would become conscience votes in Parliament, and the Scottish Tories have already promised to scupper any such DUP initiatives.
The bigger problem for Britain is that (a) with the wipeout of the moderate unionist and nationalist parties in Northern Ireland last week and with (b) Sinn Fein declining as usual, to take up their seats in Parliament because of their refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, then the balance of power agreement that ended the Troubles has been put in jeopardy. Not only is Ian Paisley’s old Party the only major Irish presence in Westminster, but the entire stability of the British government will depend on the DUP, and on whatever a desperate Prime Minister is willing to give them. Is the price of keeping the Tories in power and Theresa May in Downing Street really worth endangering the peace process in Northern Ireland?
Even if a minority government can be assembled in the short term, its longevity looks limited. In its dealings with Europe, the British government first has to negotiate the size of its exit payments to the EU, a pre-requisite before it can begin to negotiate the terms and conditions of its future relationship with Europe. Tick, tick, tick. More than ever, the EU will be feeling motivated to simply run down the clock until about 22 months from now, when it can present Britain with a ‘ take it or leave it’ set of exit conditions. Here’s how the Observer summed up the situation Britain is now facing:
We stand on the brink of the most important international negotiation since the Second World War, led by a prime minister lacking in authority and political capital. May’s decision to trigger article 50, and then call an election, was catastrophic. It is the second time in two years a Conservative prime minister has risked Britain’s national interest for personal political advantage and party management.
The two-year clock on a transitional deal continues to tick. But our politics looks as though it will be gripped by paralysis in the weeks to come. There now exists a majority of MPs in parliament in favour of a softer approach to Brexit. But the erosion of her majority means May will undoubtedly be held hostage by her party’s Eurosceptic right. It is impossible to see how this can resolve itself.
Already, the story of this campaign has passed into political folklore. Britain’s self-inflicted wounds aside, it really is hard to avoid feeling an immense amount of schadenfreude. Reportedly, the Tories’ Australian strategic mastermind Sir Lynton Crosby insisted on making May the centrepiece of the campaign. She would be a rock of stability and competence, compared to the hopeless Corbyn at the head of his hapless Labour legions, riven with internal conflict. Well, May proved to be spectacularly unfit for purpose. She came across as stiff and hectoring, while arrogantly refusing to debate austerity policies that the electorate deeply resented. Never have so few done so much damage to so many. And that’s just to the Tory party.
In contrast, Corbyn and his Labour team ran an inspirational campaign that did in seven weeks what the New Zealand Labour Party has talked about doing since 2011, but never remotely looked like accomplishing. Corbyn inspired the young and drew back into the fold communities that had previously deserted Labour and were hitherto doivoprced from the entire political process. Corbyn offered – and crucially, he embodied – a clear and inclusive alternative policy programme. A promise to rule for the many, not the few.
The contrast is quite instructive. On many points, Corbyn produced a “hard left” list of Labour policies to defend public health and education, and he promised to cut tuition fees. On Brexit, Corbyn fudged Labour’s positions sufficiently to keep the deserting UKIP supporters from heading over to the Tories. To bypass a uniformly hostile print media, Corbyn held mass rallies up and down the country that tapped into the mood for change, and he used social media to brilliant effect. The public – and especially the young – responded. As a result of this campaign, the politics of austerity and a hard Brexit are now dead.
Yes, as PM Bill English said this morning the situation is different here. And in part, it is. China’s state spending cushioned our economy through the GFC aftermath, and this enabled us to avoid the vicious cuts in public services that were experienced in Britain. Even so, there are similarities : (a) the starving of public services in education and in health, where the lack of planning for an ageing population is particularly acute (b) the sense among the young that they are being shut out of a place in the future.
In the face of those challenges, Labour and Greens have chosen to pursue the same centrist, moderate line – conservative on the economy, liberal on social issues – advocated by Corbyn’s Blairite enemies in the British Labour Party, who got hammered by the voters last Friday. Like the Blairites, the tentative Labour/Greens coalition are pursuing the line of least annoyance. The centre left parties may be lamenting the consequences of government neglect, but they are also promising — via the absurd Budget Responsibility Rules document – to maintain the economic settings causing all that social misery. In addition, Andrew Little’s Labour team has been trying to outbid New Zealand First (eg on immigration and law’n’order) for the votes of the reactionary right.
As in Britain, the public are much further to the left on social issues than the centre-left parties that claim to represent them. Unlike Corbyn, the parliamentary centre left leadership here seems afraid to stand up in public for the agendas they profess (in private) to hold dear. It won’t end well. The Greens in particular, risk sliding into virtual irrelevance, now that they seem to be confining their radicalism almost solely to the environment.
There has always been a better way. Back when Moses led his people out of Egypt, the press in Cairo were unanimous that this was going to be a total disaster. Realists were arguing that the only way ahead involved some form of compromise with the Pharaoh’s brand of austerity, and that Moses risked throwing away all the hard won gains from the belt tightening that had gone into building the pyramids. Yet after the parting of the Red Sea, Moses’ leadership was never again in question – even if fate decreed that he wouldn’t live to see his people enter the Promised Land.
I’m not sure where in Britain would have been the ideal place to be when Jeremy Corbyn performed his Red Sea miracle last Friday, our time. IMO, being in Tony Blair’s living room would have been a good place to watch it all go down. I can’t help thinking that there’s a great comedy skit to be written about how things went down with Tony and Cherie around the liquor cabinet as they watched the final nail being driven into austerity politics, the Third Way, and a hard Brexit. So much for Tony’s plan for rehabilitation, as the wise old owl helping to exorcise the final remnants of the left from a shattered Labour party. This piece of Blair’s wisdom – “Tony Blair: Jeremy Corbyn ‘zero’ threat to UK government” – makes for particularly delicious reading today.
And… a song from Tuneyards
There’s one looming similarity between Britain and New Zealand. Britain faces the prospect of a minority government that can be brought down at any moment. It may have to rely on token gestures and photo opportunities to hide its ongoing neglect of the country’s social needs. Hey, it’s worked for National for the past eight years. Here’s a terrific live performance by Merrill Garbus (and her Tuneyards crew) about that sort of thing. ‘No water in the water fountain. Whatcha doin’ here? Nothing much to do, when you’re going nowhere..’