Britain’s Elections Offer Tea Leaves for the U.S.
After the trauma of the presidential election and its aftermath, watching election results out of Britain can feel like a soothing exercise in escapism into a gentler and weirder world of Anglo-Saxon politics.
With place names out of Harry Potter, characters out of
and intertwined political and personal narratives out of
politics over there can look like a plotline of semifictional idiosyncrasy. That its leading protagonist is a prime minister of distinctly Falstaffian manner only adds to the general sense of a country inhabiting a political imaginarium.
But for all the national eccentricities, the deeper trends at work in British politics have global resonances—not least for bemused observers on this side of the Atlantic.
The U.K. remains culturally and politically the closest nation on earth to the U.S., and the larger trends at work over there—pandemic and postpandemic governance; the path to economic recovery; the rapidly shifting alignments of two-party politics and the intensifying culture wars over identity, history and social cohesion—carry distinct echoes over here.
So when Brits went to the polls last week, the results demand some scrutiny. Because last year’s local elections were postponed on account of the pandemic, this was the first nationwide election since December 2019, when
and his Conservative Party returned with a thumping majority. Voters across almost the entire U.K. got a chance to participate in something like a U.S. midterm election.
In the returns from county, suburban and metropolitan districts with names like Foggy Furze, Lower Spittal and Headless Cross, where the major-party candidates vied with characters such as Count Binface, who wears a cape and a trash can on his head, it was possible to discern at least three important outcomes that should resonate across the Atlantic.
The first is the distinct advantage of incumbency.
This was the first election held anywhere in the nascent post-Covid world. While the U.K. remains under tight restrictions, the country is in the middle of reopening, thanks in large part to the success of the vaccination rollout. Voters seem to have rewarded incumbents everywhere in the U.K.
In England, which the Conservatives dominate, the party made deeper inroads into former Labour heartlands.
But even on a bad night for the left, incumbent Labour mayors easily prevailed in major cities such as London, Manchester and Liverpool.
In Wales, which has a national assembly, Labour consolidated its hold on power. And in Scotland, the result was almost a repeat of the last elections in 2016, with the pro-independence Scottish National Party falling just short of a majority in the regional parliament but its governing ally, the Green Party, making more than enough gains to secure another term.
The rising optimism as Covid recedes, and growing confidence about economic recovery, may be the key feature of American politics in the next year. It surely points up again the opportunity
squandered last year with his erratic performance.
The second important takeaway for outsiders is renewed uncertainty about the cohesion of the U.K. itself.
Scottish voters rejected independence in a referendum in 2014. But the Brexit vote in 2016, when a large majority of Scots voted to stay in the European Union, has changed the wider political context.
the first minister of Scotland, fresh from her party’s success last week, is demanding a new referendum to take Scotland out of the U.K.
The constitutional rules are complex. A referendum likely requires the assent of Parliament in Westminster, and Mr. Johnson is implacably opposed. Once Covid is out of the way, political and legal wrangling is likely. But Northern Ireland is also in turmoil over the messy half-in, half-out arrangement with the EU that Mr. Johnson negotiated there. The integrity of the U.K. remains uncertain—with larger implications for Britain’s relations with the rest of the world.
The third and most relevant lesson for Americans from the British vote may be an accelerating party political realignment.
The Conservatives succeeded again by consolidating their steady transformation into a populist nationalist party—appealing to working-class voters who have become increasingly alienated from the main left-leaning party and the cultural, academic and establishment elites that dominate it. In a parliamentary special election in Hartlepool in Northeast England, the Tories trounced Labour again in its heartland with a message that won so many working-class voters in these areas in 2019: We share your values and we will look out for your interests.
The left and its cheerleaders in the establishment continue to pour contempt on what they regard as a narrow-minded bigotry that supports ideas such as control of borders, belief in the virtues of traditional culture, pride in national history, and a rejection of identity politics.
Perhaps those supposedly deplorable values are as enduring in Florida and Wisconsin as they are in Foggy Furze and Headless Cross.
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