The new po­lit­i­cal land­scape

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - ANNE APPLEBAUM

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.

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