Britain’s Election Is Not About Brexit

The New York Times Opinions 3 weeks ago

LONDON — The general election next month, Britain’s fourth national vote in as many years, will be a moment of reckoning for one of the world’s oldest democracies. The ideological divide between the two major parties now yawns wider than at any other point in living memory. For all of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s exhortations to “Get Brexit Done” so that politics can return to normal, the truth is that regardless of the election’s outcome, there is no longer any mundane status quo to snap back to. The country today is febrile and fractured — precisely because an epic fight for tomorrow is underway. And it involves much more than Brexit.

After promising a relatively cautious return to traditional social democracy in its 2017 manifesto — nationalization of some key industries, provision of free university education, slightly higher taxes on the richest — the Labour Party has since been driven by its base to embrace a more radical, forward-looking program, including a commitment to decarbonizing the economy at breakneck speed and ambitious reforms in favor of inclusive education and workers’ rights.

The Conservative Party, by contrast, has tacked hard to the right. Mr. Johnson’s cabinet includes Priti Patel, a former supporter of the death penalty who is widely considered to be the most hard-line home secretary in years, and the arch-Thatcherite chancellor Sajid Javid, both of whom replaced more moderate Tories. Under Mr. Johnson, the ranks of the latter have been ruthlessly culled. Whereas Theresa May’s Brexit deal sought to keep Britain relatively tethered to the European Union’s single market, her successor’s government envisions a buccaneering nation of fervent free marketeers riding the high seas of global trade — with an added emphasis on ethnocultural borders.

The cumulative impact of a decade of austerity measures and Labour shifting the political center of gravity leftward on economic policy means that Mr. Johnson has been forced to promise more public spending if he wins the election. But make no mistake: In the long term his administration remains committed, as one Conservative-aligned think tank put it recently, to “rampant individualism” and “a small state.”

In the stark difference between the potential futures it could deliver, the 2019 election is truly a product of its time. This vote was forced into existence by the pandemonium that has ripped through governing institutions in recent years — a deadlocked Parliament, the Brexit impasse, constitutional confusion. Its contours are now being molded by the deeper dynamics underlying all that turmoil, in particular the slow-motion implosion of “Third Way” market liberalism that has roiled politics across the global north since the 2008 financial crisis, and the ensuing struggle over what will replace it.

A decade on from the crash, Britain is still mired in the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars, while productivity continues to flatline. Unsecured household debt is at a record high, and more than eight million people in working households live below the poverty line. Among the young especially, for whom unaffordable housing and job insecurity are the new normal, the aspirational story that gently-moderated capitalism once told about itself has smashed against the rocks of reality.

The days when governments could promise perpetual economic growth, with a bit of skimming off the top for redistribution, are over. For many of those heading to polling stations on Dec. 12, this will be the first time in their adult lives that some form of centrist managerialism, offered by a party that could plausibly win power, is absent from the ballot.

Given that the next government must oversee some kind of resolution to the Brexit imbroglio, and will be tasked with repairing both a dysfunctional democratic infrastructure and a tattered social fabric, the choices it makes will be far more consequential than those usually faced by incoming governments. Throw in the fact that the next prime minister will be in charge for half of the decade identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the final one in which full-scale climate catastrophe could be averted, and it is no exaggeration to conclude that the victor will set Britain’s course for a generation and beyond.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that far from being “anti-politics,” a sentiment often used to describe the national mood here, people are surging toward it. Polling suggests that twice as many Britons approve of the upcoming ballot than oppose it, and well over a million people have newly registered to vote since the election was announced, including close to 500,000 people under the age of 25 this month. According to the Hansard Society, an independent research outfit, political engagement is currently at the highest level on record.

Nor is it surprising that mass polarization — part of a backlash against a discredited form of politics that attempted to elevate vast areas of public life above the fray of political antagonism — is on the rise. With each passing day of the campaign, support for smaller parties is draining away.

The decision by Nigel Farage, a close chum of President Trump and the politician most closely associated with the long battle against Britain’s membership of the European Union, not to field hundreds of his Brexit Party candidates in order to give the Conservatives a better chance of a majority has made the fundamental fault line clearer. In response, some Liberal Democrat and Green hopefuls likewise made way in their constituencies to clear the path for Labour and hold back what the party calls “the Trump alliance.”

If British citizens have become more political, that’s in part because our politics has become more political, too. As a result, the electoral stabilizers are off. The stakes at play are monumental — prepare for a bumpy ride.

Jack Shenker (@hackneylad) is the author, most recently, of “Now We Have Your Attention: The New Politics of the People.”

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