How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Days before the United Kingdom heads to the polls for its most consequential election in a generation, the lead stories on the country’s two most-read newspaper websites summed up the pettiness of British politics. “Boris Johnson denies joking about Donald Trump at NATO reception and not taking him seriously,” cried The Guardian in a reference to the prime minister’s appearance in a video that appeared to show world leaders deriding the U.S. president at the recent NATO summit. “You don’t watch the Queen’s Speech, do you Jeremy Corbyn?” the Daily Mail screamed in response to the Labour leader’s unwillingness to confirm whether he sat down with his family to watch the monarch’s annual televised Christmas Day address.
The election on December 12 is a choice between two very different—and very radical—visions of what the United Kingdom should be. The opposition Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a 70-year-old campaigning socialist who spent his entire political career on the margins of the party before dramatically winning the leadership in 2015. He is proposing nothing less than a fundamental realignment of the British economy, taking a series of utilities and services out of private hands, investing hundreds of billions of pounds in a British version of the Green New Deal, and promising an end to some of the more egregious Conservative cuts to public services and the welfare state.
For the Conservatives, now led by Boris Johnson, this election is only about Brexit, the vexed question of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. A new Conservative majority would, depending on its size, confirm Brexit; a Labour majority (unlikely) or a Labour minority government (possible) would open the possibility of another referendum that could result in the United Kingdom staying in the EU. As the most prominent politician who advocated for Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, and as the prime minister who secured a withdrawal deal with the EU in November, he is hoping that enough of the 52 percent of Britons who backed Brexit, including a substantial minority of Labour voters, are willing to give him a chance to finally deliver the withdrawal.
His vision of Brexit, like Labour’s policies on nationalization and investment, would upend the British economic framework of the past 50 years. Both major parties’ policies would also dramatically change the manner in which the country operates in the world—and even lead to the breakup of the country itself. But instead of an election about big choices, this election so far has been a petty battle, sometimes nasty and depressing, and, as those recent headlines show, often reduced to trivia. Journalists have a habit of claiming that every general election is the most important in a generation, but this really is the most important general election in a generation.
Predictably, the question of the United Kingdom’s possible withdrawal from the European Union hangs over the election, much as it has lorded over British politics since the 2016 referendum. Sky News, the dominant 24-hour news outlet in the country, has dubbed this the “Brexit election,” but the details of Brexit are oddly absent from the campaign. What would the deal Johnson agreed with EU representatives in October actually mean for the country’s future? How would it affect jobs or prices? What would a free trade agreement with the European Union look like if, as Johnson has promised, the United Kingdom adopts very different standards for British products than the ones put in place by the EU? These questions have barely been asked, let alone answered. That’s partly because none of the opposition parties believe it is in their interests to actually make this a Brexit election. Labour wants to talk about anything but Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats—a centrist, socially liberal party that in recent years has peeled many pro-European voters away from Labour—are more interested in hoovering up voters committed to remaining in the European Union than in picking holes in the Conservative Party’s policy.
As for the Conservatives, they don’t want to talk about their Brexit policy, either. Just as the EU referendum came down to the Leave campaign’s three-word slogan “Take back control,” Conservatives hope that this election will be defined by a similarly brief phrase: “Get Brexit done.” Those three words, repeated endlessly whenever Johnson appears in front of a microphone, are revealing in their own way. There is nothing in them that suggests Brexit is a good thing. The country is past that now. It’s “Let’s get this whole thing over with.” And in a way, the message manages to appeal to both Leavers and Remainers. Brexit has dominated British news for three and a half years. Voters are sick of it. And now here comes Johnson, promising to put them out of their misery. The prime minister is hoping that enough people who wouldn’t normally consider voting Conservative sigh, shrug, and think, “Screw it.”
The problem, of course, is that even with a decisive Conservative victory, Brexit will not be done, not by a long stretch. There will be another year of negotiations about a trade deal between the United Kingdom and the EU, followed by either a long extension (because it is incredibly unlikely that a complicated trade deal can be negotiated in such a short space of time) or a dangerous departure without any deal at all.
Even with a decisive Conservative victory, Brexit will not be done, not by a long stretch.
When he was not avoiding the subject, Corbyn tried his own version of this slogan: “Get Brexit Sorted.” But his plan to “sort” Brexit is not much more convincing than Johnson’s. It involves a third negotiation with the European Union, which Labour claims will take three months, followed by a referendum on the deal six months after that. In other words, another nine months—at least—of the same debate the country has endured since the summer of 2016. It’s no wonder that Labour has tacked away from discussing Brexit and steered toward more comfortable territory, such as defending the National Health Service from cuts and privatization.
Brexit has never been an easy subject for Corbyn. A lifelong Euroskeptic, he found himself the leader of a pro-European party in 2015 in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. He bit his tongue and backed the Remain ticket, though his rare speeches during the campaign were often critical of the European Union. In the hours after the referendum result, he called on the prime minister to begin the process of leaving immediately, triggering a cataclysmic row within the Labour Party that saw almost 80 percent of his MPs vote no confidence in his leadership. In the last election in 2017, Corbyn insisted that Labour back Brexit, even though the majority of the party’s members—not to mention MPs—disagreed. Only after the party’s disastrous showing in this year’s European elections, when Labour was beaten by the unashamedly pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, did he grudgingly agree to inch toward the party’s current position of promising to hold a fresh referendum about Britain’s place in Europe, with staying in the EU one of the options on the ballot. That policy has allowed Remain-supporting Labour voters to return to the fold, cutting into the likely Liberal Democrat vote.
Corbyn himself, though, refuses to say which way he’d vote in any future referendum. There is a fuzzy logic to this. On the one hand, were he to back one side and the other won, he would find it—like David Cameron before him—impossible to stay on as prime minister, implementing a policy he had campaigned against. But on the other hand: really? On the most divisive issue in British politics, Corbyn is the only person in the country without a view.
The Labour leader would much rather frame this election as a battle over austerity. For the past nine years, a series of Conservative governments has cut public spending by more than at any time since World War II. Many schools are now open just four and a half days a week, local doctors’ clinics are disappearing, libraries have closed, and local authorities—which have responsibility for some of the most important but least visible services, such as looking after vulnerable children and maintaining care homes for the elderly—have been cut to the bone. The government has also slashed disability benefits, while a new welfare system with more stringent sanctions for supposed infractions has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people relying on food banks. Homelessness, which the last Labour government substantially reduced, is on the rise again.
On Brexit, Corbyn is the only person in the country without a view.
Rather than defending this grim record of Tory rule, Johnson—who took over as prime minister in July—has tried to focus on the future, promising more police officers, more nurses, and more funding for schools. It is a hard sell, though. The Conservatives’ pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers, for example, has been met by the accurate criticism that Conservative-led governments have cut 21,000 police officers since 2010.
Even though Brexit is in some respects a foreign policy issue, none of the campaigns have drawn serious attention to Britain’s dealings with the rest of the world. Foreign policy rarely decides elections in the United Kingdom—in 2005, two years after leading the country into the disastrous Iraq war, Tony Blair won a comfortable majority. But this election is unique in that the foreign policy platforms of both major parties call for dramatic changes to the status quo: the Conservatives seek to yank the United Kingdom out of the EU and Labour wants a fundamental shift away from the liberal interventionism of the Blair era.
The radicalism of Labour’s platform has gone especially underappreciated, likely because the party trails the Conservatives by a wide margin in the polls. But in addition to symbolic policies such as recognizing Palestine, Labour plans to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships and has vowed to place human rights at the heart of British foreign policy. Were Corbyn to become prime minister, U.K.-U.S. relations would enter a rather new phase, even if a Democrat enters the White House in 2021. Corbyn’s track record of outspoken criticism of U.S. hegemony would surely complicate the transatlantic alliance.
Corbyn has collected an eclectic bundle of causes from around the world over the past 30 years, and an odd mix of them got their moment in the sun in his party’s 2019 manifesto. He promised to support the rights to self-determination of Western Sahara and West Papua—the first time either region has ever been mentioned in a British election manifesto. More controversially, Labour pledged to recognize the right of Chagos Islanders and their descendants to return home. The problem is that the “home” of the Chagos Islanders is an island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia that has been leased since 1966 to the United States for use as a military base. Corbyn’s desired policy would bring him straight into collision with Washington.
What is notable about the Conservative foreign policy platform, by contrast, is how little it says about anything aside from Brexit. Of the 59 pages of the party’s manifesto, just three pages are devoted to the rest of the world, and one of those is taken up with a full-page photograph of Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary. China is not mentioned once—the Conservatives have nothing to say about either the protests in Hong Kong or the crackdown on Muslim Uighurs, let alone how the United Kingdom should deal with China’s growing global power. Nor does the party have anything to say about the world’s biggest humanitarian crises—neither Syria nor Yemen merits a mention.
Instead, the manifesto is packed with Brexit bluster. For example, it claims that “getting Brexit done will allow us to do more on the international stage,” while in a short passage on human rights it says “once we leave the EU, we will champion these values even more strongly.” No explanation is offered as to why EU membership makes the United Kingdom ineffective on the global stage or prevents it from championing human rights.
The opinion polls suggest that a Conservative majority is likely, although the possibility of a hung Parliament or even Labour cobbling together a coalition or minority government cannot be ruled out. Polls can change and political journalists don’t yet know all the variables that might affect the result. Both main parties won more than 40 percent of the vote in 2017 and both have lost large chunks of those coalitions at every local and European election since. It’s unclear whether voters who defected from Labour to vote with parties more clearly opposed to leaving the EU will now return to Labour, or if those Conservative voters who want to remain in the EU could stomach Corbyn as prime minister.
Since the 1970s, the United Kingdom—like much of the rest of the Western world—has experienced a slow realignment in party politics. Class and income used to determine which party voters chose; now race and education play a larger role. The social axis between liberal and authoritarian is becoming more important; the old economic axis between left and right, less so. There is a growing divide between cities (Labour) and towns (Conservatives).
This gradual realignment has made elections harder to predict. Voters, after all, are more complex than they are often imagined to be. A Twitter feed called British Voter Bot has become a much-needed corrective to the propaganda, posturing, and pettiness of the general election campaign. Every few hours, it spits out the anonymous details of a real British voter taken from the most recent British Electoral Study: where they’re from, how they get their news, what they think on three big issues. Then it tells you how they voted in the referendum and the last election. Sometimes it’s obvious: the voter who thinks Brexit was a disaster and that public services are great voted Remain and Labour. But often there is at least one detail that doesn’t quite fit the story that political journalists spin about the voting public: the woman who backs the death penalty but voted Labour, for instance, or the man who supports wealth redistribution but voted Conservative.
British voters have been failed in this election campaign.
Those voters have been failed in this election campaign. Their trust in politics, which was seriously damaged by the 2009 scandal that saw hundreds of parliamentarians forced to repay money that they had erroneously claimed in expenses, has been further eroded by a political process increasingly plagued by half-truths and outright lies. The TV media, frustrated in trying to get the usual access to the leaders—Johnson has refused to sit down with the BBC’s main interviewer—have struggled to focus on the issues that matter. The newspapers, which have never hidden their political biases, have now become hyperpartisan cheerleaders, particularly the once serious Daily Telegraph (which used to employ Johnson as a columnist). Social media and smartphones have pushed voters further away from mainstream news sources toward friends, memes, and Facebook for “news” that may be anything but. British voters are awash in a sea of trivia, propaganda, and three-word slogans—and no one knows what they will make of it all.