The UK could fall apart as Johnson's Brexit takes shape

For students of chaos theory, the explanation for the madness starts on September 25, 2010, with the narrow and surprising election of Ed Miliband as Labour's leader.

By James Astill

Published: Mon 23 Dec 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 23 Dec 2019, 10:17 PM

British politics has been half-crazed for some time - but the results of the election held on December 12 might suggest the country has gone properly insane. Or how else to explain the fact that, after three-and-a-half years of debilitating politics and increasing economic pain, following the country's narrow vote to leave the European Union, British voters have just rewarded the main Conservative architect of that chaos, Boris Johnson, with his party's biggest parliamentary majority in over 30 years? Polls suggest that, if the Brexit referendum were rerun today, Britons would vote to stay in the European Union by a nine-point majority. How was this election result possible?
For students of chaos theory, the explanation for the madness starts on September 25, 2010, with the narrow and surprising election of Ed Miliband as Labour's leader. Miliband's elder brother David, a well-regarded moderate and former foreign secretary with proven leadership qualities, had been expected to take over the party helm. The fact that he was pipped to the post by his younger brother-by merely 1 per cent of the vote-instead gave Labour a weak leader, determined to move the party to the left, from which position Ed Miliband duly led Labour to a crushing electoral defeat. Worse, before exiting the scene of his failure, he radically changed the way Labour elects its leaders. Henceforth, they were to be chosen by party members - which is to say, by anyone willing to pay a £3 membership fee - not the party establishment.
This ill-considered change made it possible for well-organised fringe groups to capture the leadership election process - which duly happened. Labour replaced the decent, cerebral, but easily ridiculed, Miliband with Jeremy Corbyn. As a prime ministerial contender, he was an actual joke. A veteran of 32 undistinguished years in the House of Commons, Corbyn is a conspiracy theorist and unreconstructed Marxist. He has a long history of supporting left-wing cranks and terrorist outfits, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Irish Republican groups with links to the murderous Irish Republican Army (IRA). He would ideally like to scrap the monarchy and appears not to approve of much in British history. Though personally courteous, he is indecisive and brittle when attacked. He is reputed, by those who have worked alongside him for decades, not to be very bright.
The notion that Corbyn could lead Labour to victory seemed preposterous from the start. Britain is a patriotic and culturally conservative country. It is not a coincidence that Tony Blair, who pitched the party to the right of the Tories on law and order and otherwise in the centre, is the only Labour leader to have won a parliamentary majority in half-a-century. Yet, heading into this month's election, it at least seemed possible to imagine Labour and other opposition parties doing well enough to deny the Tories a majority-because Johnson and his governing party are also unpopular.
Having governed for a decade, they have accrued a record which has something for everyone to hate. The austerity programme introduced by the first Tory Prime Minister of that period, David Cameron, is especially unpopular. But the main reason for their poor standing with voters is the monumental hash the Tories have made of implementing Brexit-which is also why Britons are starting to turn against it. Johnson claims this failure owes to his and the previous Tory government having been frustrated by an unrepentant pro-EU lobby inside and outside the party. This is not entirely true; he and other Brexiteers are equally responsible for blocking the pragmatic Brexit terms negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May. Rather, the fundamental source of the Tories' failure to negotiate and implement Britain's exit from the EU is that the shiny promises made by Brexiteers have turned out, on their first brush with reality, not to be achievable.
The Tories' struggles to implement Brexit have been largely caused by their unwillingness to face up to these truths. And though Johnson has made a little more progress than his predecessor, in that he has got Parliament to approve a revised version of May's deal, it has not made him loved. The Prime Minister is a watchword in British politics for mendacity. When Johnson said the "truth matters" during a pre-election debate, the studio audience laughed at him. (Fittingly, his revised Brexit deal involved him breaking a promise not to accept different customs arrangements for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This threatens to draw a tacit border down the Irish Sea-making Northern Ireland's eventual departure from the UK more likely.)
The election has guaranteed at least a limited breakup of the EU. Yet its most significant consequence may be the breakup of the UK. The imposition of customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is liable to speed its economic alignment with the Republic of Ireland and weaken the case for unionism. And in Scotland, the nationalist cause has been even more obviously advanced. Scotland voted by a hefty 62 per cent to remain in the EU; only Scottish independence could now make that possible. The SNP, which exists to bring about that end, says this represents an unanswerable case for a rerun of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. And if that happens, the outcome would be highly uncertain; opinion polling suggests Scottish public opinion is now evenly divided on the issue.
Johnson, who has the power to grant or deny the SNP its demand for an independence referendum, says he is against it. The 2014 vote, he points out, was supposed to be a "once in a generation" exercise. Yet, he may calculate that being seen to deny the Scottish public will in this way would make a vote for independence, sooner or later, even more likely. Either way, it has become extremely hard to be optimistic about the UK's prospects of holding together.
-Open magazine
James Astill is the political editor of The Economist

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