Britain’s Unpredictable Predictable Politics
On April 4, Sir Keir Starmer became leader of the Labour Party in Britain, succeeding the hapless Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has led the party into the political wilderness during his disastrous five-year tenure as party leader.
That period culminated in the devastating loss of 60 seats in the House of Commons in the general election last December. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson achieved a lock on British government policy with a decisive majority of 365 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) also won big, securing 48 of the 59 House of Commons seats allocated to that region. Johnson has adamantly ruled out independence for Scotland, the prime goal of the SNP
As Sir Keir’s royal title implies, he is relatively moderate, in contrast to Corbyn’s hardline doctrinaire socialism, which includes commitment to nationalizing industry. Accusations of anti-Semitism also damaged Labour during Corbyn’s tenure.
Starmer’s moderate policy positions are reminiscent of Tony Blair, who led the party to three successive general election victories and served as Prime Minister for a decade, 1997 to 2007. Starmer is widely respected as a defense lawyer specializing in human rights, and is a prestigious Queen’s Counsel. He won election to Parliament in 2015 and rose quickly in the Labour Party.
Starmer’s victory has particular significance for national defense, the NATO alliance, and the important “Special Relationship” with the United States, deeply rooted in history and dating from World War II. Corbyn and associates were profoundly hostile to the military and alien from defense concerns. Labour under Blair was strongly committed to Britain’s alliances, especially with the U.S.
British politics has been fracturing into multiple parties, no longer two or even three. Brexit, the agonizing effort to break free of the European Union (EU), splintered the governing Conservative Party and then split the Labour Party.
In January 2019, colorful and controversial Nigel Farage announced formation of his new Brexit Party. “Brexit” is shorthand for leaving the European Union. This single-issue extreme political formation also emphasizes hostility to immigration, the other side of the Brexit coin, and nationalism comparable to Donald Trump’s.
Last May, beleaguered Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she was stepping down as soon as her party chose a new leader. This followed three devastating parliamentary defeats of her complicated efforts to withdraw from the EU.
Her announcement came right after elections to the European Parliament. The radical Brexit Party was the main winner. However, the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats also did quite well, and when combined with the pro-Europe Greens/European Free Alliance was on a par with the Brexit Party.
Flamboyant Johnson’s success in succeeding May surprised many, similar to Donald Trump’s election. Johnson quickly, characteristically secured an agreement with Brussels to leave the EU – details to be worked out this year. Johnson gambled boldly by holding the December election, and won again.
Important to keep in mind is that the British have preserved institutions and the rule of law, even as new political parties are emerging. In our time, the British have maintained stability through institutional as well as policy reforms, generally peacefully. Regional assemblies for Scotland and Wales are one result. Scotland’s strong public commitment to the EU guarantees continued controversy.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland argues election results show policy matters. Specifically, considerable public sympathy for Brexit drives the new party. Sir John is an increasingly visible and influential expert on politics and opinion trends.
Starmer has an opportunity to build a moderate pro-Europe alliance with the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The Conservatives in 2019 won many Labour seats, which could easily be lost again.
While Britain’s politics can baffle, the long-term success of representative government and party democracy stands.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org