London, Jan 08 (BAN): What a year in British, and indeed, in world politics 2019 has been. We have just emerged from our Christmas and New Year festivities unusually wiser than usual as to what the immediate future holds for the UK; and this improved certainty for once happens to relate to Brexit. The UK General Election held on 13 December 2019 resulted in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government being returned to parliament with a sizeable majority and with this the power to, in his own words, ‘get Brexit done’.
As his first act on returning triumphantly to Westminster, and backed by impressively swollen ranks of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister once again put his withdrawal bill to a parliamentary vote – a vote, which this time proved successful in clearing its first major parliamentary hurdle. The bill’s success in passing means that the UK now has an international agreement in place, which will regulate the country’s future relationship with the European Union once the former departs the latter, which is due to take place on 31 January of this year.
Unfortunately, for those readers suffering with Brexit fatigue I regret to inform you that, notwithstanding the withdrawal agreement’s success in being voted through, this has not however drawn closure to the Brexit saga. This is because Britain is now due to enter into a period of intense negotiations with the European Union with the aim of forging a comprehensive free trade agreement with the bloc. For the UK government’s part, it is hoped that these negotiations will conclude by the end of the 2020 so that Britain can then diverge from the EU economically and then begin the process of forging its own way in the world.
Suffice to say that the best way to understand how we got to where we are now is by analysing the December 2019 general election with the aim of determining what the results of this election might mean politically for the UK over the course of the years to come. This should be done while bearing in mind the significantly altered electoral landscape – a landscape, which I argue has the potential of leaving the country in quite a high-risk political situation.
Overall, it is quite clear from the election results that the country took the decision to back Boris Johnson’s government, along with his commitment to end the Brexit uncertainty in parliament, by furnishing him with an impressive parliamentary majority to deliver Brexit. What was most impressive for the Conservatives was the fact that the party was able to win seats in regions in the north of England where they have never traditionally been strong, but where their pro-leave message was however greeted with open arms by voters. For political anoraks such as myself it is still proving difficult to come to terms with the fact that Labour Party heartland seats such as Bolsover and Sedgefield are now represented in the House of Commons by Conservative Members of Parliament.
On the remain side of the political divide, and excluding the Scottish Nationalist Party who experienced significant electoral gains across Scotland, election night proved to be a bad one for pro-EU parties. For its part, the Labour Party suffered their worst election defeat since 1935 losing dozens of seats in what used to be electorally safe areas for the party in Britain’s former industrial hinterlands. Things were not great for the Liberal Democrats either who failed to return their big name candidates such as Chukka Umunna and Luciana Berger to parliament. As if this was not bad enough news for the die-hard party of remain, the party was forced to suffer the humiliation of their leader Jo Swinson losing her seat in East Dunbartonshire to the SNP. What is also worthy of note are the election results in Northern Ireland, which saw nationalist parties win more votes than unionist parties for the first time in a UK general election.
On analysing these results, what I find disconcerting is what the electoral map of Britain now depicts. What onlookers will find, on close examination, is that Brexit has resulted in our politics becoming ever more nationalistic. This is the case when one considers that the victorious Conservative Party has now effectively become the party of pro-Brexit nationalism for both England and Wales; that the SNP continues to dominate and gain ground in Scotland while running on a Scottish independence election manifesto; and that nationalist parties are beginning to make significant inroads with voters in Northern Ireland concerned about the potential impact of Brexit on peace on the island of Ireland.
I say that I find the situation disconcerting given that British electoral politics seems to be solidifying around socio-cultural issue, or issues of identity, which in turn could result in our politics becoming increasingly unstable and fraught with risk. History shows that political battles fought around issues of identity can lead to some very unpleasant outcomes. This has much to do with the inability of identity-obsessed political actors to arrive at any form of compromise with their similarly inclined opposite numbers. Indeed, why would you want to compromise on any issue, which relates to your identity and which you regard as being an integral part of who you are? The political instability and violence, which gripped Northern Ireland for much of the twentieth century provides us with a dark precedent of just how badly wrong things can go within a society that was once at relative peace with itself.
It is my hope that, as we head into this new year, political leaders of all sides of the Brexit divide will exercise as much moderation as possible with regards to the tone that they adopt when dealing with one another. I say this because it is one thing to blame the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn for blocking Brexit but it is quite another however, with a view to the recent election results, to blame Nicola Sturgeon and the Scots for causing trouble over the same issue. And of course, the same logic would also apply the other way around.
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street after his election victory, Boris Johnson urged everyone to find closure on the Brexit divisions that have sown so much discontent within British society with the aim of enabling a process of national healing to begin. I very much hope that both he and the government which he leads, along with the various other winners of the 2019 general election, will both deploy language and conduct themselves in a manner that helps us all towards this noblest of goals.