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A British Test for the Populist Revolution

Posted by hkarner - 9. Dezember 2019

Date: 07‑12‑2019

Source: The Wall Street Journal By Gerard Baker

If Boris Johnson’s pro‑Brexit Tories capture a large portion of former Labour voters in next week’s election, it will transform British politics and galvanize conservatives across the West

A country that likes to consider itself the most stable of democracies, a model of government typified by steady, pragmatic, get‑things‑done‑with‑no‑drama progress, has descended in a few years into southern European‑style political chaos.

Next Thursday, the British go to the polls in a nationwide vote for the fourth time in less than five years. The result could produce the U.K.’s fourth prime minister in a little over three years. If the opposition to Boris Johnson’s incumbent Conservatives can beat the odds and win on Thursday, the Battle of Brexit, which has paralyzed politics for 3½ years, is likely to be prolonged for a while yet, with the prospect of at least one more national vote in 2020. It’s possible that one outcome could be the eventual breakup of the kingdom itself.


The turmoil unleashed by the referendum of 2016, when a majority voted to leave the European Union, has done damage not only to the country’s reputation but to the fabric of its own cohesion and morale. The bulldog spirit of Winston Churchill leading a nation in mortal peril, the unyielding determination of Margaret Thatcher leading a country out of economic calamity have given way to an age of politics that seems to have been scripted and performed by the Marx Brothers.

Thursday presents a chance to draw a line under all this. The election should—there’s no guarantee—signal a decisive outcome on Brexit. While any result is possible, one of two is most probable. Mr. Johnson could win an outright majority in the House of Commons—which polls currently suggest is likely—allowing him to secure Brexit legislation that will see the U.K. leave the EU early in the new year. Alternatively, some kind of ad hoc coalition of Brexit‑resisters could form, led probably by Labour’s left‑wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and would almost certainly introduce a second referendum next year that would either cancel Brexit entirely or see some softer version enacted some time in 2020.

But this election—and the political forces shaping it—is about much more than that. It’s a defining moment in the development of modern Western politics, a potentially pivotal event of the age of populism, with ramifications that go beyond British shores.

A Conservative Party that has long stood for neoliberal economics and social tolerance is becoming a party of economic populism and nationalism.

If Mr. Johnson wins on Thursday, he will do so at the head of a Conservative Party whose voting base will have been radically transformed. A party that has for most of the past half‑century stood foremost for neoliberal economics, allied to a liberal approach to social issues such as same‑sex marriage and racial integration, is becoming a party of economic populism and nationalism. A party whose core supporters were in large part highly educated, economically successful achievers, open to high levels of immigration, free trade and global integration, is becoming a party whose base will include huge numbers of the less advantaged and less well‑educated, who have lost ground in an age of rising inequality and who support protectionism, tight restrictions on immigration and the primacy of national sovereignty.

“We are seeing a realignment of Conservative politics. By backing Brexit, Boris Johnson is attracting working‑class voters who are more socially conservative, who want government to be tough on crime and immigration, and who lean to the right on other social issues,” says Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent and co‑author of a book on the new global politics, “National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.”

On the other side, the election represents perhaps a last stand for the liberal internationalists desperate to reverse the Brexit vote. Labour and the Liberal Democrats—parties of the left whose politics are now defined not by traditional economic issues that emphasize the plight of working class voters but, in line with their Democratic cousins in the U.S., by personal identity, the rights of minorities and a globalist worldview—are hoping to win enough seats to work in collaboration with the Scottish National Party to block Brexit and force another referendum. The price of that bargain might well be another referendum in Scotland on independence for that country and the breakup of the U.K.—ironic for parties that seek to emphasize the importance of international cooperation and unity.

The election represents a last stand for liberal internationalists desperate to reverse the Brexit vote.

The outcome will be decided in perhaps a few score of the 650 constituencies across the country. The kind of historic transformation this election could represent is best typified by a place like Bishop Auckland. This parliamentary constituency in County Durham in the far northeast of England has been represented by Labour members of parliament since 1935 and before that by a mix of Labour and Liberal members. As recently as 1997, the party won the seat with two‑thirds of the vote.

It is working class to its core. Coal mining used to dominate here. Now most of the pits are closed and have been only partially replaced by manufacturing and service businesses. Like much of England’s north country, it’s clear that the region has been left behind by the rapid economic development and success of London and the south of the country. The unemployment rate is considerably higher than the national average. Many storefronts in the high street are boarded up. The educational attainment level of the local population significantly trails the national average.

It is partly a sense of resentment and frustration at being left behind that led voters to choose to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Bishop Auckland voted 61% to 39% for Brexit.

This has had large political consequences. Helen Goodman, the local Labour member of parliament, supported Remain in the Brexit vote. For the past three years, the Labour Party—many of whose voters backed Leave but whose leadership supported Remain—has been engaged in an effort to dilute, delay and even thwart Brexit completely, supporting parliamentary maneuvers that have resulted in repeated defeats for Brexit in the House of Commons.

When Mr. Johnson became prime minister in July, his central promise was that he would end all this mayhem and “get Brexit done,” after the tragicomically ineffectual prime ministership of Theresa May. After the original deadline for leaving the EU was postponed twice by the Commons, a hard core of European enthusiasts in his party joined forces with Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists to further delay Brexit in September. Mr. Johnson immediately expelled almost two dozen Conservative MPs, depriving him of a majority and making an election almost inevitable.

The decision was controversial but has proved pivotal. The Conservative Party, now purged of those who were seeking to soften or cancel Brexit, was now identifiably for Brexit.

The voters in Bishop Auckland seem to approve. According to a nationwide poll published last week by YouGov, the constituency is set to vote Tory for the first time in its history. It is one of dozens of seats the Conservatives could gain from Labour in the election, many of them similarly traditional Labour heartlands in the north and Midlands of England, almost all of them districts that voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, may lose seats that voted to Remain in areas such as London and elsewhere in the south, but the net effect, according to the poll, which used sophisticated social data modeling to project every single district in the U.K., would leave him with an overall majority of 68 seats—the largest Tory majority since 1987.

One of the main reasons for the transformation in British politics—and it applies to the U.S. too—is changing political geography. In the U.K. in the past 30 years, as in other countries, there has been a widening gulf in economic performance between the major metropolitan areas, especially London, and the small towns and cities in the rest of the country. The economic inequalities between these two geographies have been much greater than the widening of inequality within each set of areas. That’s created a solidarity among voters in each geography, pro‑ and anti‑Brexit, and now increasingly pro‑ and anti‑Conservative.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, delivers a speech on Brexit, Harlow, U.K., Nov. 5.

“The Tories could gain many constituencies like Bishop Auckland and other seats across the north and Midlands, including a number of seats that have never voted Conservative,” says Mr. Goodwin.


If he wins, Mr. Johnson will quickly get his Brexit deal approved by a now united Tory party in the Commons. The prime minister negotiated a new withdrawal agreement with the EU after his predecessor’s efforts failed, three times, to pass the house. His deal leaves the U.K. less closely aligned to the EU after Brexit—with the exception of Northern Ireland, which for all intents and purposes will remain very close in economic terms to the bloc to avoid the reimposition of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain a member of the EU.


The U.K.’s political identity is being reshaped.

Critics note that even passage of this deal will mark something of a beginning rather than an end. It will need to be followed immediately by negotiation of a long‑term trade agreement with the EU, which is due to come into force in January 2021. These are likely to be tortuous negotiations, but in the end, some kind of a deal is likely. Mr. Johnson then wants to move quickly to use the newfound freedom of the U.K. to negotiate a trade deal with the U.S.


Even more important than this reordering of Britain’s relations with the rest of the world, though, may be the reshaping of the country’s political identity. According to YouGov, the Conservatives now lead among working‑class voters by double‑digit percentage points, the largest support they have ever enjoyed among this group and exceeding their lead among professionals, business owners and other more affluent voters.


The Conservatives aim to keep working‑class Brexit voters by appealing to them across the board on issues that go beyond the immediate saliency of national identity. That’s why the party has offered at this election a program of significant fiscal support for expanded public services such as health care and education, and more money for infrastructure investment outside London to narrow the north‑south divide.


A Johnson victory might be the most significant moment yet in the populist revolution sweeping across Western democracies.


The larger import of this political transformation goes beyond the implications for U.K. politics. If Mr. Johnson can pull off this victory, it will mark perhaps the most significant moment yet in the populist revolution that has swept across Western democracies in the last five years. The same political forces that united to produce the vote for Brexit in 2016 were at work in the victory of Donald Trump that same year, as well as in advances for right‑wing parties in Europe in the past few years—from Poland and Hungary, where they govern, to Italy, Germany and France, where they have garnered a significant chunk of popular support.


The proximate causes have been disparate, but the underlying broad political realities are similar: large groups of voters who feel ignored and even disdained by their traditional political leadership. These are often, but not exclusively, white working‑class voters who have been left behind in economic terms by globalization and alienated from their cultural elites in major urban centers.


They favor a politics that has been largely taboo in polite dinner party company in Manhattan and Islington: much stricter controls on immigration; preferences in public services for native‑born citizens; tough anticrime measures, including the death penalty; a restoration of national sovereignty away from supranational bodies such as the EU, the U.N. or the WTO.


They have been unsettled by the speed of change of cultural norms across the West in the past decade or two—the legalization of same‑sex marriage, secularization, the elevation of nontraditional gender roles and the denigration of the very idea of gender differences. The voters in Bishop Auckland and elsewhere who may deliver a victory to Mr. Johnson on Thursday have their counterparts in places like Grand Rapids, Mich., and Leipzig, Germany.


It won’t be lost on ironists that the two principal tribunes of this populist revolution are Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, one the scion of an upper‑class English family educated at the most exclusive private school in England, the other a billionaire real‑estate developer. But perhaps that makes them the ideal exponents for the modern age of an inverted politics, a politics that has been twisted on its axes.


The British Conservative party has been described as the most successful political party in the world. It has survived for almost 200 years—most of which it has spent in government—in large part because of a pragmatic flexibility, a willingness to adapt to and harness economic and political change. If Mr. Johnson’s new national populist party wins on Thursday, it will be a model that will be studied by ambitious conservatives across the West.


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