MIKE SCRAFTON. It’s not all about Brexit

Nov 5, 2019

Everyone’s crystal ball is fogged. The outcome of the UK’s election is clouded. More than the future of the nation’s relationship with Europe depends on the outcome. Brexit might be one of the lesser consequences.

The UK might be entering the end game of the long decolonisation process begun in earnest after the last world war. British politics could be fractured in way that will take a generation to heal and its political institutions may emerge with deep wounds.

The media augurs hardly know which omens to regard. There’s the split in the electorate over Brexit which is reflected in the parties. The Conservatives offering Johnson’s amended version of May’s deal, Labour holding out the prospect of a renegotiated deal followed by another referendum, the Liberal Democrats promising a withdrawal of the Article 50 action, the Brexit Party saying a pox on all your houses and pushing for a hard, no deal Brexit, then there’s National Party of Scotland which is pro-remain, and the Democratic Unionist Party that really just wants any outcome that doesn’t create a de facto or de jure break with the UK.

Yet, it is not at all clear that Brexit will be the main, or even an important, determinant of voter behaviour. If it is, indications are public opinion is moving toward remain. This trend might be strengthen by Trump’s confession that a trade deal with the US is next to impossible with Johnson’s deal.

The psephologists of The British Election Study Team have revealed the great volatility of UK voters in recent times. They found ‘the 2015 and 2017 General Elections saw more people change their vote than ever before, with nearly half the country (49%) voting for different parties across the three elections from 2010-17’. The team anticipate the ‘forthcoming election will again show high levels of voter switching’.

The inherent uncertainty of turn-out in first past the post voting and the deterrent effects of the dark, cold wet days of December, combined with this volatility, makes prediction fraught. Another hung parliament seems a strong possibility.

Stepping back, another way of viewing these developments is to see it as the last stage of the disaggregation of the United Kingdom, itself the last remnant of the British Empire.

Since even before Robert the Bruce defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, there has been a strong desire among many Scots for an independent nation. Today polling indicates that public opinion is moving in favour of a second referendum on Scottish independence with support for a yes vote perhaps in the majority.

Similarly, there appears now to be a slight majority in Northern Ireland in favour of reunification with the Republic. The Good Friday Agreement saw the conditions under which a ‘border poll’ would be conducted made law in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Once the Secretary of State is satisfied a majority for reunification exists she must enable one.

The UK is experiencing pronounced centrifugal forces. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, a sentiment which could affect not only their votes in the election but also their reaction to the overall outcome. It is not outside the bounds of possibility that England could be shorn of its oldest colonies in Scotland and Ireland as a result of the process initiated by the Brexit referendum.

A further unknown factor is the extent to which voter disenchantment with the performance and theatrics of the political parties in Westminster will have an effect. Johnston might well push the people versus parliament line in the campaign but none of the parties emerge from the past three years of parliament untarnished.

There has been a continuous narrative in much of the UK press that Westminster is broken. Certainly past months have demonstrated the inordinate difficulty facing minority governments in the adversarial politics of the UK. It remains to be seen whether just tactically voting to produce a majority, any majority, will play a role.

Those voters who favour leaving the EU will not necessarily see the failure of either May or Johnson to get a deal through the House as a bad thing. Some will have wanted a harder Brexit and some a far softer deal. Remainers will of course be pleased with the failure of Brexit to be consummated. Businesses will not automatically favour Johnson’s take-it-or-leave-it approach to this unexamined or unamended deal as the devil for them will be in the detail.

Johnson’s hi-jinks with proroguing parliament, sending unsigned letters to the EU, among other shenanigans, might wear on his popularity as the campaign progresses. Trust will be an issue for him. Corbyn’s ambiguous stance on Brexit could hamper Labour’s chances but if he can make the election about the legacy of the Conservative’s austerity program and the state of the health and education, and frame it as a contest between elites and the rest, he might blunt his low personal popularity.

This election is not just about Brexit. British voters have shown an increasing degree of discrimination when it comes to the issues that affect them. The old party loyalties no longer hold.

Irrespective of who wins the UK will be transformed. A victorious Conservative Party would take the UK into the uncharted waters of Brexit, Labour into a radical program of re-nationalisation of outsourced assets and services, union friendly labour laws, and higher taxation. A hung parliament would produce chaos.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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