UK election saw three big pillars of political stability crack on a single day

The Irish Times, by Fintan O’Toole
17th December 2019

The fragile UK is now in the hands of a man with the touch of a chicken strangler

Boris Johnson on the steps of 10 Downing Street. If it was not already blindingly obvious after the election results came in on Friday morning that the political settlement on these islands is in serious danger of unravelling, it sure is now. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Boris Johnson on the steps of 10 Downing Street. If it was not already blindingly obvious after the election results came in on Friday morning that the political settlement on these islands is in serious danger of unravelling, it sure is now.

What lesson should the Government take from the results of the election in what is more and more dubiously called the United Kingdom? That denial is deadly. When the tectonic plates are shifting, the natural instinct of every political establishment is to pretend it’s not happening. But it happens anyway and by the time you come to acknowledge it, it is too late to try to exert control. If it was not already blindingly obvious after the results came in on Friday morning that the political settlement on these islands is in serious danger of unravelling, it sure is now. The Government’s instinct is to avoid this reality. The precedents on these islands are not good.

Brexit was always going to undermine the established order of the UK, but on Friday it became clear just how rapidly and radically this has happened. Three big pillars of political stability were cracked on a single day: Labour, the Conservatives and Northern Ireland unionism. Labour’s catastrophe is the most obvious: it has been almost wiped out in Scotland, and is much reduced in Wales, the midlands, and the north of England. But it should be noted that mainstream conservatism is even more battered. Look at classic old school conservatives like Dominic Grieve or David Gauke, both losing their seats by a margin of two to one. The Conservatives are now the Brexit Party.

Where this leaves us is that the UK has become questionable, not just as a set of institutions but even as a democratic concept

Bear in mind that Labour and the Conservatives were not just competing parties within Britain – they were crucial in holding Britain together. Only the Tories have “Unionist” in their official title, but Labour has been a powerful bastion of unionism too. It was one of the great pan-British institutions. It gave real meaning to popular notions of solidarity and shared aspiration. It created a common history of struggle and progress that dovetailed with the conservative history of empire and greatness. Between them, Labour and the Conservatives maintained the idea that even though there were passionate political arguments, they were arguments within the same polity.

Alienation

And now they are both shattered. Why? Because they ignored what they did not want to see – the profound sense of alienation that was taking hold in England. Northern Irish unionism did so too. The DUP, in particular, indulged in one of the worst cases of mistaken identity in recent history. It looked at the English nationalism at the heart of Brexit and convinced itself it was seeing an enthusiastic outburst of Britishness. The result is not just that for the first time a majority of Northern Ireland seats are now held by non-unionists but that Johnson is entirely free to impose the withdrawal agreement and the “border in the Irish Sea”. 

Where this leaves us is that the UK has become questionable, not just as a set of institutions but even as a democratic concept. In every democracy, people accept the results of elections and referendums because, even though they may disagree with those results, they also accept the framework in which the vote happened. Brexit is so utterly destabilising because there is no common framework. It can be viewed as a UK decision: “the people” as a whole voted to leave the EU. But is there one “people”? The UK in reality has five different entities: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Greater London and what Anthony Barnett calls England-without-London. What people actually experienced in each of them was not at all what the UK experienced as a whole.

Apparent consensus

In the UK framework, the Brexit vote was a close-run thing. The same is true of Wales. But in the other four entities, there were very large majorities, three for remain (Northern Ireland, Scotland and London) and one for leave (the rest of England). That’s what people really experienced: an apparent consensus within their own region. And what’s happened in this election is that these voters have upped the ante on this feeling: the large majorities either way have now sorted themselves out in party terms. So Northern Ireland and Scotland are even more remain than in 2016 and London voted completely differently from the rest of England, with Labour holding its own there.

Boris Johnson is prime minister of England-without-London and the English parts of Wales

These emerging polities now look both more internally coherent (they voted, within their own boundaries, largely along the same lines) and more different to each other. Each of them now has its own particular political champions, and in only one of them is that Boris Johnson. He is prime minister of England-without-London and the English parts of Wales.

Crisis over Scotland

Does this mean the UK is over? Not yet. But it is now a very fragile construct that has been placed in the hands of a man with the delicate touch of a chicken strangler. A crisis over Scotland is looming. Northern Irish unionists will be profoundly unsettled by Johnson’s betrayal of them. The economic consequences of Brexit (not least for the English northern regions that have voted for them) are still to be felt. There is trouble ahead. And it won’t go away if we ignore it. Labour, mainstream Conservatives and Unionists are all paying a very heavy price for looking the other way as the tide of English nationalism came towards them. Irish officialdom must not succumb to the same delusion.