Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Britain’s enigmatic elections

The outcome of the recent parliamentary elections in Britain may signify that the UK is struggling to reformulate its identity after the referendum to leave the European Union, writes Hany Ghoraba

In one of the most surprising outcomes for a British election in a long time, the British public recently stripped the ruling Conservative Party of the majority in the British parliament that it has enjoyed since 2015. The outcome of the elections came as a surprise, as did the shocking vote for the United Kingdom to exit from the European Union in a referendum less than a year earlier. A radical shift from right-wing politics to left-wing ones, one way of reading the results of the recent elections, has left observers baffled about the sudden shifts in British public opinion that have characterised recent voting patterns.

On the one hand, Great Britain voted to exit from the EU in 2016 due to the economically taxing, interventionist and lenient immigration policies adopted by the organisation. These policies have seemingly irked the majority of the British public for years and have now led them to vote for complete independence from European laws and regulations. On the other hand, the same nation in less than a year from the Brexit vote in many cases voted for left-wing Labour Party candidates in the parliamentary elections. Some of these candidates are pro-EU, rendering the task of exiting the union an even harder one for incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May who has pledged to respect the voters’ choice in the Brexit referendum.

There are many explanations as to why British voters did not consolidate May’s powers to finalise a quick exit from the EU. One of these is that there are still many in Britain under the shock of the result of the Brexit vote, which was to them surprising as it was even to some of its own advocates. Apparently, the country was not prepared economically, politically or even socially to exit the EU, which despite its various shortcomings has seemed to be a stabilising factor for the UK. The outcome of the recent elections may signify that the British nation is still struggling to formulate its identity and desired path after the Brexit vote.

Many in Scotland are demanding a new referendum on independence from the UK, for example, similar to that in 2016 which barely missed voting to exit the union. The reason for such a demand is that a good majority of Scots still believe in the EU and may wish to leave the UK in order to rejoin it. If the past few years serve as any indicator, the wishes of the Scots could turn into reality and the world could witness an independent Scotland rejoining the EU while the rest of the UK exits from it.

The biggest winner of the recent elections may be the Labour Party, which has managed to close the gap between its number of seats in parliament and that of the majority Conservatives. The party, headed by controversial leader Jeremy Corbyn, has been celebrating some surprising gains. Corbyn has not been shy about rubbing shoulders with notorious figures including members of terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood. His association with these did not deter many British voters from voting for his party’s candidates in the elections even as they risked seeing Corbyn becoming the next prime minister.

There is currently a period of waiting in Britain as British citizens absorb the effects of the surprising Brexit vote and hope that the positive results of it will soon be felt. For the time being, the average British citizen may well feel dismay at having to contribute to paying the hefty Brexit bill charged by the EU to Britain without any immediate or even foreseeable tangible results. This may have encouraged the anti-Brexit camp to gain momentum during the parliamentary elections.

May made the same mistake as former prime minister David Cameron in misreading the British political scene and voter feelings before calling for an early snap election that she thought would strengthen her powers. She believed that she required a reinforced mandate before tackling the tough negotiations for the Brexit from the EU. Unfortunately, the election backfired, and she has weakened her position in the negotiations further.

A year before, Cameron lost the Brexit referendum after rushing into it apparently unaware of its possible consequences. The end result was a political stunt that cost him his position as prime minister and Britain its membership of the EU. Something similar applies to May, who has weakened her position significantly as prime minister and has now been forced to try to rule with a precarious and very limited majority in a coalition with another party. She did not learn from her predecessor’s blunder, and she was overconfident in seeking a larger mandate.

May is now left with few choices to form a stable government that can survive a vote of confidence. The most likely, yet equally undesirable, of these choices is to ally the Conservative Party with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which won 10 seats in the elections, simply to secure a majority vote on upcoming bills in parliament. However, while this move may secure a marginal majority, it has its own political drawbacks.

The possible deal with the DUP represents a challenge and a possible risk to the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, and Northern Irish Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams warned on 15 June that an agreement with the DUP was a breach of the agreement and would jeopardise the peace. A similar concern has been expressed by Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who referred to “deep-seated concerns” over the possible deal with the DUP and the impact of any such deal on the future of peace in Northern Ireland. However, the most stark warning came from within the Conservative camp itself, as former prime minister John Major warned that the Conservative-DUP agreement would threaten the hard-earned peace in Northern Ireland.

May might be able to save the Tories their majority even with the loss of seats in the last elections. However, in this process she may open a Pandora’s Box of problems as a result of being perceived as meddling in Northern Ireland in favour of the Unionists who will now be an ally of the Conservatives in the UK parliament. This will remove the impartiality of May’s government on volatile Northern Irish issues. That is one Pandora’s Box that May cannot afford to open, as it might place the UK under the threat of revived violence in Northern Ireland.

The British nation is moving between right-wing policies and far-left ones, rendering the political spectrum unpredictable. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of British voters who now regret voting for exiting the EU despite its shortcomings. That regret stems from the hefty costs that the nation will have to bear as a result of the unforeseen expenses and complications that the exit will entail.

The British public is still struggling to find a pathway to the future as the majority seems dismayed by both left- and right-wing policies and has been seeing no improvement in the overall standard of living. Brexit has not thus far boosted the economy, ended illegal immigration, or stemmed terrorism activities. Moreover, many jobs may now be lost as a result of the Brexit and the loss of European funding for facilities provided to Britain as a member of the EU.

With Article 50 triggered, signalling the beginning of the two-year process for the UK to exit the EU, the world’s oldest democracy is now at a crossroads in terms of redefining its economy, politics and social policies in the light of the Brexit reality that will sever its 44-year membership of the EU. The next two years will witness Britain sailing into uncharted waters, at least until British citizens accustom themselves to the post-EU era which will have its own set of challenges on all levels.

However, things may not be all doom and gloom as some have predicted. After all, Britain has all the necessary tools for survival, including a strong economy, a powerful currency, an industrious population and a large cultural output. If these tools were to be used skilfully by the British nation, it would pass the post-Brexit period with flying colours.

But such challenges will still require a calibre of leadership that Britain has not seen since the resignation of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Thus far, May has yet to prove herself worthy of Thatcher’s seat.


The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

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