The Britain to which I will fly at the end of June will be one scarred by recent acts of terrorism and the country’s impending departure from the European Union. But it will also have been shaped by a general election which is taking place on Thursday, to determine who will govern Britain in the coming years.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May became Prime Minister last year following the British vote to exit the European Union. She never faced a general election, which in itself is unremarkable in Britain: Winston Churchill served five years as prime minister before he submitted himself to the electorate; Gordon Brown and John Major in recent years ascended to the premiership without a general election.
May called a general election after pledging otherwise in order to take what she saw as an easy opportunity to increase her party’s narrow majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative’s operating assumption was that the Labour Party would go down to an historic defeat because of its current leader.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn won a shock election against the inclinations of a majority of the members of parliament whom he leads. Corbyn has never held ministerial office, and comes from the left of a party that had its last 13 years in power defined by its right-wing. A critic perhaps less prescient than dogged of the security state and British foreign and financial policy, someone like Corbyn was never supposed to be able to lead Labour.
The British public felt otherwise, and large numbers of new members flocked to the party to elect Corby and then later to see off a challenge from the party establishment. Corbyn’s term as Labour leader has been damaged by the mismatch between his support from the grassroots and the dearth of the same from his parliamentary colleagues, something that can prove fatal in a parliamentary system.
Thus, the Conservatives believed there was a strong opening to exploit Labour’s divisions while campaigning around May’s almost autocratic command over her party.
The election has not gone as planned. Many British commentators believe that Corbyn has outperformed May on the campaign trail and in the media, and even studiously neutral members of the country’s deeply paternalistic commentariat have remarked on the media’s unfair treatment of Corbyn, a theme articulated by his supporters and echoing claims by the left of the Democratic Party about Bernie Sanders.
Either the Conservatives or Labour will lead the next government, although it’s not inconceivable they will do so in a coalition with other parties. The pro-European Liberal Democrats, nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, and the Green Party are also actively contesting seats across the country, with the Scottish Nationalists and Lib-Dems vying for third place.
Both major British parties are committed to honoring the Brexit vote, but Labour have proved more committed to protecting the status of European nationals living in Britain, and are likely to be more friendly to migrants who seek to enter after the drawbridge has gone up. The Conservatives are solicitous of financial interests, whereas Corbyn is promising a program of economic redistribution. The Conservative’s signature environmental policy is the reintroduction of fox hunting to please a rural squirearchy, whereas Labour is more concerned with redressing the consequences of nearly a decade of economic and social austerity.
The major Conservative talking points are less about anything they have to offer, and more about turning the public against Corbyn. He is, the country’s right-wing press, argues, a dangerously outlandish figure, a blast from a particular past--the troubled 1970s. Michael Fallon, like a seal far too long out of water, and Boris Johnson, giggling like a frat boy who doesn’t realize he’s naked on a television set, have led the attack, while May dodged a debate among party leaders.
Corbyn’s foremost sin, for Conservatives, is his willingness to take a long hard look at the consequences of the Anglo-American wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, and to evaluate their relationship to terrorism in Europe today. The idea that armed invasion, weapons sales to dictators, and unthinking bombardment in the name of humanitarianism might have something to do with terrorism is the kind of radical proposition that makes neo-conservatives blanche and cross themselves.
But it is really far less radical than the combination of hubris and fundamentalism that drove the war in Iraq which destroyed the country’s institutions and identity while killing hundreds of thousands and populated spaces evacuated by the state with international terrorists who continue to stand at the ready to take up arms to present themselves as defenders of Islam against the Anglo-American war machine.
The national security consensus governing Britain, the U.S., France, and much of the rest of the west, is the best recruiting tool that ISIS and its ilk could wish for, and Corbyn has ruffled many feathers by saying as much. In doing so, however, he is only echoing the widely praised Chilcott report, which described how Blair and Bush were warned by analysts that their violent project in Iraq would have precisely the consequences it did.
One could equally argue that Corbyn’s economic radicalism is little more than the mildly social democratic consensus embraced by Prime Ministers Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, and Wilson between the 1940s and 1970s. More radical by far, was Margaret Thatcher’s embrace of what George H W Bush memorably called “voodoo economics” in a slightly different circumstances (even Thatcher mounted a silent retreat from monetarism after the early years of her premiership).
Corbyn’s economics are little more than an admittedly easily caricatured version of social democratic realpolitik, whereas Thatcher and May make the economic equivalent of a claim that water runs uphill. Wealth unlike water, as has been vividly proven in the U.S., has a tendency to gravitate to the top in the absence of democratic checks and regulations. So the primary fairytales of this election are in May’s premises that what’s good for the banker is good for the bricklayer, that terrorism can be defeated without addressing its underlying causes, and that strapping herself to an unstable fascist at the helm of the sinking American ship of state is good for Britain.
Like Blair a decade and a half before her, May is convinced that Britain is nothing without its American alliance. In pandering to Trump’s ethnic nationalism--which clearly she finds personally repugnant--she invited the president on a state visit to Britain.
Any such visit will invariably center around London, a city violated by a recent terrorist attack on its citizens, just on the heels of an attack in Manchester. Donald Trump has used the violence against Londoners as a pretext to attack the city’s mayor for enjoining his fellow citizens to stay calm and not let terrorists alter their way of life. The mayor’s call was accompanied by a promise to increase the police presence on the city’s streets.
That was all too subtle for Trump, and Sadiq Khan is a little too brown and Muslim for the Beast’s taste. So the American president has repeatedly mocked the mayor and his efforts to defend his city’s multiculturalism, pluralism, and ethic.
Just as recent European elections in the Netherlands and France have been partially defined by the realization that fascists in power is an actual prospect, so too Trump looms over the British election.
Like a grotesque, semi-literate troll with hands just small enough to grasp a phone, and thumbs just nimble enough to tap out a machine-gun fire of monosyllabic salvoes of hate, Trump has crawled from beneath London Bridge to gorge himself on Britain’s casualties of the violence committed on that bridge. Trump is seeking to promote panic and hatred, partly because it’s what he does best, and partly because he desperately needs to distract from his incompetence, destructiveness, and criminality.
Above all, British voters should enter the polls thinking about the futures that Labour and the Tories offer their families, friends, community, and country. But they should also consider whether in 2017 they want to once again take a stand against a fascist threat, subtler from what the world experienced in the past, but dangerous nonetheless.