British election has the makings of a Greek tragedy

British election has the makings of a Greek tragedy

British election has the makings of a Greek tragedy

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in Islington, north London, in a file photo from 2016. (Credit: Rick Findler/PA via AP.)

Snap elections in the United Kingdom did not go according to plan. Prime Minister Theresa May hoped to secure the largest majority in decades for her Conservative Party, but instead saw a surge by the opposition Labour Party. The result is a weakened prime minister, and uncertainty ahead.

Commentary

Ever since the election results were confirmed yesterday morning, we Brits have been speaking a lot of ancient Greek.

For a start, there’s the hubris of the prime minister, Theresa May, in calling an election to secure a strong, stable government to better negotiate with Brussels, only to find herself weak and wobbly in a hung parliament, 12 seats down and dependent on Northern Ireland’s hard-line Unionists to form a government.

The Conservatives won, of course, in the narrow sense that theirs is the largest party (316 seats to Labour’s 265), but it is  — excuse more Greek — the victory of Pyrrhus against the Romans, one that inflicts such a devastating toll that it is tantamount to defeat.

Indeed, the one doing the victory lap is May’s nemesis, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, whose audacious bolt to the left, promising billions in extra spending, galvanized young voters and millions of ordinary people concerned about social services — above all health—creaking under the strain of years of spending cuts.

This was a realignment election in an age of political realignment, a reverberation from last year’s Brexit vote that was badly misjudged by May and successfully read by Corbyn. Her plan was to reach out to Leave supporters in the poorer north who had voted UKIP – a single-issue party which led the campaign to leave the European Union – in previous elections while his was to create a new coalition of public sector workers, urban liberals and young people.

Labour’s new voters turned out to be real, but May’s were not. As she predicted, the UKIP vote collapsed, but went to Labour. On the largest voter turnout (close to 70 per cent) since the early 1990s, Labour experienced the biggest swing in its direction since World War II.

The other story of the night was in Scotland, where Conservatives took 20 seats, including prize scalps, from the Scottish National Party (SNP), which seeks independence from the United Kingdom. Just as south of the border, this was a release of pent-up anti-nationalist sentiment. The Scots don’t want another referendum on independence, at least not yet, just as in England they don’t want a hard Brexit. These islands need their bridges.

There are two big reasons behind this extraordinary political upset, and some smaller ones.

Both Leavers and Remainers are deeply concerned about Brexit: The massive impact it will have, our unpreparedness for it, and the apparent willingness of the Conservatives to drop out of the European Union without a sensible arrangement to remain part of the single market.

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” was May’s refrain. It went down badly with Tory Remainers, who fear a future of isolation as well as years of economic uncertainty.

Her attempt to persuade us that she needed a big majority to negotiate with Brussels backfired. Voters told her, in effect, to find cross-party consensus in favor of a soft Brexit.

Although their election statements got little play in the media, the Catholic and Anglican bishops had emphasized precisely this issue of Britain’s future place in the world, expressing anxiety about its openness to refugees and the threat to its alliances of solidarity. Britain’s voters and its bishops appear to have been in sync.

The second big factor, related to the first, is the background of real wages falling and property prices slumping.

Brexit is beginning to bite, and people are feeling the pain. (To add insult to injury, the EU is coming out of its low-growth trough). At such times, people feel extra concern for safety nets and social services.

The Tories offered no real response to this anxiety, claiming vaguely that they would seek the best possible trade deals with Europe and the rest of the world. It sounded complacent, and unreal. At the same time, they offered little by way of a public spending boost to meet the needs of the health service.

Labour’s offer was unreal, too — a massive tax hike that would surely scare off investment — but at least it was an offer: For long-term infrastructural spending to create jobs, and serious increases in state spending.

Corbyn’s sub-Marxist economics may not stand serious scrutiny, but that mattered less than his showing he was in touch with people’s concerns and had a plan.

May, conversely, was punished for staying in her soundbite bubble. The second poll in just two years — not including last year’s referendum — it felt like an unnecessary election, called to serve the interests of the Conservative Party, not the country. Voters felt they were being taken for granted, their only purpose to give May a landslide she didn’t deserve.

Her disastrous campaign, which her strategist Lynton Crosby tried to make all about her, rested on the simple idea that faced with a choice between her and Corbyn to negotiate with Europe, the nation would fall at her feet.

As in a Greek tragedy, the election did become about her — but her hamartia, or fatal flaw. Under the spotlight, she came over as robotic, complacent, and patronizing, endlessly repeating the same slogans (“strong and stable” and “coalition of chaos”) and never answering direct questions.

She helicoptered from one stage-managed photo op to the next, and even neglected to take part in a TV debate with the other leaders, for which she was excoriated. Corbyn, by contrast, took trains everywhere and was greeted by rapturous young crowds, to whom he explained his manifesto in nerdy detail.

May’s biggest mistake was to announce, early on in the campaign, a major shift in funding long-term elderly care by including the value of people’s houses.

It wasn’t a silly policy, but announced so badly and confusingly that it quickly span out of control, allowing opponents to deride it as a “dementia tax” and leaving old people — a natural Tory constituency — feeling insecure. By the time she had corrected the policy on the hoof, the “strong-and-stable” slogan looked massively silly.

Then came the terrorist attacks: First in Manchester, then in London. She should have benefited: Normally, emergencies benefit the incumbent, allowing them to look statesman-like.

Instead, as news emerged of the extent of the threat represented by 3,000-odd jihadists in Britain, her record of cuts to police numbers as Home Secretary came under the spotlight. By the time she was threatening to rip up human rights laws to better pursue ISIS, she had begun to look desperate.

Oddly, Corbyn’s own record of opposition to anti-terrorism laws — delightedly picked over by the right-wing press — didn’t seem to do him any harm.  

People preferred to judge him not on his past but what he was going to to do now. When he called for a significant real-terms increase in police spending so that the jihadists could be properly monitored, that made sense to people.

The other story of the night was the collapse of the center. Between May and Corbyn was a vast, 1970s-style classic choice between right and left that should have bolstered the Liberal-Democrats.

But despite some gains — four seats, bringing them to 12 — they lost some high-profile figures, including former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, and failed to benefit massively from the Remain vote.

Clegg rightly points out that MPs will now need to find a cross-party consensus on a more moderate approach to Brexit or the UK faces more elections until one party wins a majority, which would devour much of the two-year negotiating window.

May is determined to avoid that, convinced she can form a minority government by securing the ongoing support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is pro-Brexit.

But if she is in league with the DUP, which represents the Protestants of Northern Ireland and advocates a strong union with Britain, can Westminster any longer claim to be a neutral presence in Northern Ireland at a time when the power-sharing deal between the nationalist Sinn Fein, which advocates unity with the Republic of Ireland in the south, and the DUP has broken down?

On the other side of the channel, of course, the longstanding partners from whom we now need to negotiate our divorce look on in bewilderment. It is hard to imagine a modern democracy putting itself into such a vulnerable position.

May went to the country looking for a mandate, and was refused it. She remains, but as a massively diminished figure. The Tory party is already sharpening its knives. Many say she’ll be gone by Christmas.

Meanwhile, the future of the UK’s place in the world looks even more bizarrely uncertain than it already was.

When we look back at the UK’s 2017 general election, it’ll perhaps be another Greek word that comes to mind: pathos, a calamity that is inextricably linked to future suffering.

Let’s pray it’s cathartic.

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