Commentary. Thursday’s Conservative victory in the UK elections will usher the country out of the European Union and make London vulnerable to a historical irony: de facto colonization from Washington.
Johnson’s victory in the British elections was widely expected, although not with a majority far greater than what he needed to govern. In parliamentary terms, the outcome could not be clearer. However, does this mean the UK is a stronger country for it? If we consider this issue, we will reach a number of reflections that are also relevant for the Italian case.
The decisive theme of the election campaign was the clash between Brexit and overturning it, i.e. those who still supported “Remain.” Johnson focused his message on this topic, only barely sketching a few social themes in passing.
For instance, he made vague promises about strengthening the National Health Service. With this strategy, he managed to drain almost all the support from Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.
Corbyn and Labour paid a high price for their ambiguity and uncertainty on the topic of Brexit, and in the end there was no united front for Remain supporters. The UK’s strict majoritarian electoral system did the rest.
The differences in electoral orientation between urban and rural areas and between the north and south of the country were already well known. However, this election result will undoubtedly increase tensions even more.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP), a strong supporter of Remain, won almost all the seats in play and got the second best result in its history, including at the expense of Labour candidates. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Prime Minister, immediately argued that the vote bolstered her demand for a new referendum on Scottish independence.
She argued that the Conservatives had been defeated in Scotland because they had denied the Scots the right to decide for themselves.
Furthermore, she announced that her government would be submitting a number of documents next week in support of the view that the power to decide on whether or not to hold a referendum on independence does not lie with the UK Parliament in Westminster, but rather with the Scottish Parliament.
Sturgeon seems intent to go around the predictable refusal that a request for an independence referendum is certain to receive from a Conservative-dominated Parliament. The road ahead is difficult, because the 1998 Scotland Act (which, with its subsequent amendments, forms the legal basis for the devolved powers of the Scottish administration) explicitly includes among the “reserved matters” which are beyond the purview of the local parliament “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” and “the Parliament of the United Kingdom.”
It seems clear that the decision to ask the question of independence via a referendum is thus excluded from the Scottish parliament’s powers. We will see what arguments the SNP will bring forward in support of their position. Perhaps they will aim to organize a referendum of a purely consultative nature.
On the theme of the independence referendum, the SNP is undoubtedly capitalizing on the prevailing opinions among the Scots, who seem to be divided almost exactly in half between those who are for and those who are against an independent Scotland, while a large majority is in favor of holding a popular consultation on the matter.
Johnson’s victory seems to have made the United Kingdom more disunited. In Ireland, Sinn Fein immediately resumed its calls for a popular vote on the possibility of Northern Ireland reuniting with Ireland. This is one of the reasons why Johnson chose to make very conciliatory statements in the immediate aftermath of the vote, focusing on the topic of putting an end to divisions and looking towards the future together.
However, the biggest obstacle to the overcoming of divisions is the distortion introduced by the UK’s electoral system on the fundamental issue: Brexit vs. Remain. If we sum up the total number of votes received by the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, we reach a total of just over 14,600,000 votes. However, if we sum up the votes received by Labour, the Remain-supporting Lib Dems and the SNP, we reach a figure of over 15,230,000 votes. Thus, it cannot be said that there was a popular majority at the polls in favor of leaving Europe—at least not under Johnson’s terms.
Added to this is the fact that the Conservative Party has won almost 55% of the seats with just 43.6% of the votes. This translates into a hefty majority in Parliament, but the country remains deeply divided along multiple fault lines.
We in Italy should also pay heed to the lesson of the results of Thursday’s vote. In particular, these results should suggest to many of our professional would-be “reformers” that electoral systems aimed at ensuring governability and which are content to do any amount of violence to full proportional representation are not the best answer.
Of course, we won’t stop hearing from those who are pleased with such results, arguing that such an electoral system will allow for effective governance and decision-making. Time will tell.
With his usual amount of social grace, Trump tweeted about how jubilant he was at this result, promising the most amazing trade deal between the United States and the UK that the world has ever seen.
Let us add a counterpoint to that: the United States was born out of a number of British colonies, which fought for independence against the “motherland,” an imperial power at the time.
Now, it’s the turn of the British to leave Europe in pursuit of a fantasy of regaining their lost greatness. However, ironically enough, the only realistic prospect is that they’ll end up being a de facto colony of the US, now firmly in the role of the imperial power.