The results of the recent elections in the United Kingdom took me back to another ghastly political moment.
You guessed it. It was in November 2016, when Donald Trump surprised millions of Americans, the rest of the world and quite possibly himself as he was elected president of the United States. Beneath the apparent differences between the two leaders of the two largest English-speaking nations of the world lie disquieting similarities.
But first, let’s take stock of the profound disaster that has befallen the United Kingdom.
There is little dispute among experts that Brexit will hurt the British economy, which is likely to shrink. Just as it is with free trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico—once you have free movement of goods and services, too many businesses develop cross-national ties which can be very, very painful to sever. It’s not just the big guys. Britain is dotted with countless small, mom-and-pop operations that source or send goods across the border. The new customs and tariffs nightmare will likely cripple a lot of them. Britain’s young people dreamed of being part of a broader commonweal with the rest of Europe based on broad pan-European values of a tolerant and plural humanism. They must be bitterly disappointed.
Boris Johnson is essentially a mendacious Trump wrapped in an Oxbridge-educated posh accent. Like Trump, he has a penchant for bluster and making populist promises he has no idea how to keep.
However, give the devil its due. Unlike Trump, who squeaked through in his elections Johnson’s victory is massive. The Labour Party has got the biggest thrashing since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
How on earth did this happen?
First, let’s get rid of the jaundiced critiques of Labour. The hapless Labour leader Jeremy Corbin has almost as many detractors on the left as he has on the right. They gleefully point out his failings. Corbin was too radical. He was too wishy-washy on Brexit. He was too soft on anti-Semitism. If Tony Blair or Norman Brown had been around, this could have been averted.
To be sure, there’s a grain of truth in all of these critiques, but this was not what undid Labour. Corbin’s predicament was that he faced an impossible task. The Brexit divide ran right through the middle of Labour’s supporters, and even Solomon would be hard-pressed to find a Brexit policy that would satisfy everyone. For those who say unequivocal support for a new vote for Brexit would have done the trick, just look at the Liberal Democrats: They got clobbered as well.
But there may be a more disturbing reality lurking underneath it all. British writer John Lanchester observed in “Brexit Blues,” a prescient article in the July 26, 2016 issue of The London Review of Books: “The trouble with where we are now is that the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved. To simplify, the Tories are a coalition of nationalists, who voted out, and business interests, who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals, who voted in, and the working class, who voted out.” (I urge readers to go online and listen to the audio of Lanchester reading his article. It is a sensitive, gripping, heart-breaking and detailed analysis of the socio-economic conditions that launched Brexit.)
Lanchester says a significant part of the British white working class—a traditional Labour constituency—has been left behind
“Geography is destiny. And for much of the country, not a happy destiny,” Lanchester writes.
“To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat—a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy. . . . The jobs and the grammar schools (are gone), and the vista instead is a landscape where there is often work . . . but it’s unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid. This new work . . . doesn’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth.”
The similarities with the US are uncanny.
“The white working class is correct to feel abandoned: it has been,” Lanchester writes. “No political party has anything to offer it except varying levels of benefits.”
Boris Johnson has promised these disaffected voters that he will take back control, whatever that means.
Caveat emptor. Johnson has a long track record of breaking promises. Just last September, during his battle for the Conservative Party leadership, he had famously said that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than allow Brexit to be delayed beyond October. Well, October has come and gone, and Brexit hasn’t happened yet. Johnson is quite undead.
As London mayor he broke a slew of promises. Among them: A bike hire plan with no cost for taxpayers, cutting congestion, cutting transportation fares, keep underground ticket offices open. And don’t even get me started on the double-decker boondoggle.
Sound familiar? Trump rode to victory on promises to replace Obamacare and create millions of jobs with a huge infrastructure programme. Obamacare is still the law of the land, and nobody quite knows what happened to his infrastructure plans.
So, amid all the despair, I take some grim satisfaction from Johnson’s undeserved victory. Trump’s victory led to the Republicans gaining control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. They failed to repeal Obamacare, let alone replace it. There are strong signs that healthcare is growing in importance as an election issue, and voters trust Democrats overwhelmingly on this.
So, there you are, Boris. You’ve won with an overwhelming victory in Parliament. Brexit will happen.
Then the fun will begin, as Scotland tries to leave, and all the economic chickens come home to roost. How are you going to keep your promises? Your past record does not inspire a lot of confidence.
Good luck, because you sure as hell are going to need it.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.