I paid little attention to government or politics while living in Luxembourg. This was partially because all the official business was conducted en français and translation was très difficile, and partially because we only planned to be there for a couple years.
“Not my circus, not my monkeys” seemed like a good strategy.
Even before moving to the UK, I had spent enough time here – and had enough friends here – that I was at least superficially aware of UK politics and government.
I followed the Brexit debate and vote from afar, and witnessed some of the sclerotic convulsions up close and personally, from “this side of the pond.”
When I decided that I didn’t understand Brexit and the underlying arguments, politics and dynamics as well as I wanted to, I asked local friends for perspective and read a bunch. Papers and periodicals on both sides of center. Books about Brexit and the EU, and some about political dysfunction and polarization.
Most of this had the effect of “making me smarter, but not happier.”
They say misery loves company, so I figured I’d share.
Even leaving Brexit aside, it’s been … challenging… to reconcile recent events with the historical perspective of Britain as a stable well governed country with responsible adults in the halls of power.
The government’s response to the pandemic, and the indefensible actions of government ministers. Boris’ casual relationship with truth and determination to stay in power. The short but economically disastrous tenure of his successor. The government’s response to the cost of living crisis and the dramatic inflation and skyrocketing energy prices driving it. The wave of strikes and industrial actions affecting transportation. The seeming acceleration toward collapse of the national health care system.
The party that has been in power for over a decade seems to be treating these problems as though they were of someone else’s creation. That they’re as surprised as anyone to find these systems and institutions creaking after years of their policies and management, and that they’re just trying to do their best.
“I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” –Capt. Renault
It’s been just as hard understand what role the opposition party has to play in this drama, and if they’re playing it effectively, or showing up at all.
When we arrived in the UK, the left-leaning Labor party was embroiled in multiple crises and suffered a disastrous electoral loss. Its hard-left leaning leader had helped the party alienate and lose many historically reliable supporters, and he was personally accused of permitting, if not supporting, antisemitism amongst party leadership. It’s tempting to say it was surprising how difficult it was to remove him from the reigns, but the dynamic of a toxic personality holding on to power is frustratingly familiar.
He did ultimately resign, and his successor, a former barrister, is significantly more centrist. He’s been praised for effective oration and lambasted for being “boring and bland.” It’s not clear how much more excitement the country has an appetite for, but in a landscape of perpetual and persistent crisis, someone who just promises “not to break things” struggles to be heard over the noise.
In theory, the role of the opposition party, and the so-called “shadow cabinet,” is to scrutinize policies and actions of the government, and offer alternatives.
When I’ve asked local friends why we don’t hear more suggestions from Labor, canny responders point out that the opposition party never has strong incentives to volunteer their “best ideas.” The risk is that those ideas are adopted or co-opted by the sitting government. True, good things might happen. And true, the opposition might get some credit, but voters have notoriously short memories, and credit today doesn’t win the next election.
Since we’re talking about elections, general elections in the UK don’t happen on a fixed schedule. The date of the next general election has not yet been set, as of this writing. The next election is no later than five years and some days after the first meeting of the just elected Parliament.
Since the previous general election was December 2019 (that’s the one that Labor lost in a dramatic fashion when a bunch of historically reliable supporters voted against them) the next election is no later than December 2024.
But before you get to confident, did I mention that the general election prior to 2019 was June 2017?
Wait. What? I hear you ask. June 2017 to December 2019? That isn’t ever five years just then.
Yes, ahem. Well, you see… the sitting government can call an election earlier. Basically any time it likes.
So that’s interesting. Why would they call an early election? You might ask. Isn’t that just risking being voted out?
If you’ve ever played a push your luck game you might think of it sorta like that. If you call an early election (push your luck) you might lose. If you lose, you hand your opponent control. But… If you call an early election and you win you’ve ensured control for another five years. So if you’ve just done something amazing, and you think people are happy with you and will vote for you if you asked right now, you might call an early election and ask them, right now.
Credit today wins elections tomorrow.
Of course only the sitting government can call an early election. No amount of dissatisfaction by the opposing party, or the populous, can force one.
So no matter how dissatisfied the population might be with the sitting government right now, they aren’t guaranteed a chance to express that dissatisfaction (at the polls, at least) until December 2024. And voters, as mentioned above, have short memories.
What’s got the pitchforks and torches out at the moment may well have faded into the mists of memory come polling day.
US political commentators and analysts are fond of starting statements with “if the election were held today…” In the UK that is approximately a possibility.
But if the rest of that sentence isn’t “the incumbent would win in a landslide” it’s a pretty unlikely one.
In light of government behavior over the past couple years, and current satisfaction levels, I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict
six more weeks eighteen more months of winter…