The new political landscape
On June 8, Britain will hold an election that will look, at first glance, much like any other British election. The date is a little sooner than planned — the prime minister, Theresa May, has called the vote early to give herself a broader mandate during Britain’s upcoming negotiations with the European Union — but “snap” elections are hardly unheard of in British politics. Those have been held before; there have also been plenty of elections, in the past century or so, dominated, as this one will be, by the “center-right” Conservative Party and the “center-left” Labour Party. Maybe. But this time, they are not battling for the center.
Instead, this will be, in Britain, a battle between two parties that would have looked crazy and extremist — farright and far-left — to their own members only a few years ago. May’s Tory Party differs so radically from David Cameron’s Tory Party, which was victorious in 2015, as to be unrecognizable. It is not just “Euroskeptic”; it will take Britain out of the European Union in the most definitive manner possible, cutting economic, trade and legal links, something no Conservative leader since the 1970s would have contemplated. It has muted Cameron’s “green” conservatism, and taken over the anti-immigration agenda of the UK Independence Party, the fringe group it once feared as a rival; it will probably dispense with Cameron’s commitment to foreign aid as well.
Tony Blair’s centrist Labour Party, meanwhile, has been replaced by Jeremy Corbyn’s quasi-Marxist leftists, who will campaign on an agenda of much higher taxes, much more spending and heavy skepticism not only toward the E.U. but also toward NATO, the United States and all remaining trade organizations, international organizations and historic British allies. Corbyn wants Britain to give up its nuclear deterrent; he has appeared on both Russian and Iranian state TV. He has a long track record of supporting the Irish Republican Army, dating to the era when the IRA staged terrorist attacks on British targets.
Meanwhile, a different kind of radicalism will be on display in Scotland, where the pro-independence Scottish National Party may well sweep the board. Because Scotland voted to stay inside the European Union, an SNP victory may set the stage for another referendum on independence, and even for an end to the United Kingdom. May has promised this will not happen; Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, has promised that it will.
Curiously, the three parties do have one thing in common: They all claim to be fighting for “the people” against an unnamed and ill-defined “elite.” They all offer their followers a new sort of identity: Voters can now define themselves as “Brexiteers,” as class warriors or as Scots, opposing themselves against enemies in (take your pick) journalism/ academia/the judiciary/London/abroad/ financial markets/England. If you were wondering whether “populism” was nothing more than a political strategy, easily tailored to elect any party of any ideology, you have your answer. Leftwing radicals, right-wing radicals and Scottish radicals all share a style, if not an agenda.
There remains only one unknown: What happens to everybody else? What about the centrists, the significant portion of the country now uncomfortable with both major parties? What happens to the 48 percent who voted to keep Britain in the E.U.? What happens to people who are neither Brexiteers, nor class warriors nor Scottish? Not all of them (indeed hardly any of them) can actually be characterized as “elite,” but that doesn’t mean they want any of the three populist projects on offer. They do have one political option: the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s “third party,” which sometimes does well in odd years like this one, and which will try, like Emmanuel Macron in France, to create a broad centrist base. But the Liberal Democrats haven’t got the structure or the funding to fight for every seat in the country. Instead, centrists will probably choose a lesser evil, stay loyal to their old party and hope for the best — or not vote at all.
If the polls are right, the result will be a Conservative landslide, in parliamentary seats if not the majority popular vote (sound familiar?). The “Brexiteers” will claim a mandate, not just on Europe but on all other issues, too. Everything in Britain will look, at first glance, much the same. But everything will be completely different.