The election result is widely seen as a return to the old tradition of two-party government, with any other parties in the Commons of no importance at all except at times of two-party deadlock. As it happens, now is such a time, with the DUP receiving some attention. But surely, many think, the old days of Conservative v. Labour are returning, with every prospect of a clear majority for either Conservative or Labour at another election later this year or early next. Both the leading parties (and therefore everyone else in the political establishment) are breathing a great sigh of relief at the eclipse of UKIP and the reduced vote for the SNP. The election was not about Brexit or (in Scotland) Scottish independence, it was back to the old theme of the haves and the have-nots. Familiar loyalties, class loyalties really, had reasserted themselves. Thank God for that, they say – now we know where we are again. We can handle that.
Even before the election, the polls were being presented and interpreted in the traditional way – the figure to watch was the Conservative lead over Labour. The Conservative lead – immense at first – rapidly shrank as Corbyn fought an effective campaign and May a very uncertain one. On polling day, Labour didn’t quite get ahead. It was like 1974, when in desperation Heath called an unexpected election and Harold Wilson just failed to get an adequate majority. At the second election in 1974, Wilson got a bigger majority, just enough. Probably Corbyn will get the majority he needs in six months’ time. And Sir Humphrey will soon civilise him – or perhaps Labour will throw him out once they’re in power.
Actually, the election was not quite as simple as that. What actually happened is that there was very little if any voter movement from Conservative to Labour. The Conservative vote remained fairly steady. But over the period of the campaign, the UKIP vote (already lower than it had been) fell away and most of the defectors went to Labour. And the SNP also declined; again, Labour benefited. To understand the election result and its implications, we need to understand the reasons why the UKIP and SNP votes declined.
Ask the electorate: the electorate will tell you that we had had two referendums with clear results. The people had decided, once and for all, that Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union. Even those who had voted otherwise, both North and South of the Border, had accepted the results. Politicians who agitated for referendum re-runs gained little support. That meant (it seemed) that UKIP had attained its object and was just another right-wing party and the SNP had got as much as it could and was just another left-wing party.
And the leaders of both parties, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond, had resigned after their respective referendums. They had, they said, done all they could and things would now take their course. They were replaced by far less able and attractive leaders. Personal support fell away. It seems that all the steam has gone out of both Scottish patriotism and British patriotism. But in the case of the Brexit referendum, only because the electorate, and perhaps even the UKIP leader, were under the impression that a decision – a final decision – had been made. In the case of Brexit, it has not.
The British electorate is not accustomed to referendums and does not understand them. In some countries, they have legal force. In the U.K., they have no legal force. If the Scottish referendum had resulted in a “leave” vote, the day after the referendum, Scotland would have remained as much part of the United Kingdom as at any time since the Act of Union. Scottish independence would have come, if it had come at all, only after a great deal of negotiation, many disputes, much delay and quite possibly another referendum before the final break. In fact the vote went the other way and the matter was immediately settled, because everything carried on as before.
Similarly, if the Brexit vote had gone the other way, the matter would have been settled and things would have carried on as before. But we voted for change: to leave the EU. The result (without a pro-Brexit government) was bound to lead to a period of uncertainty, requiring much re-thinking and very strong and determined political leadership.
Theresa May called an election for one reason only: she can’t handle Brexit. She says that if Brexit is to happen, Britain needs strong leadership. She is right. If the British people wish to get out of the EU (and they clearly do) then the British people must produce a leader who can handle the transition. It will require leadership qualities of a kind which have not been seen in British politics since Margaret Thatcher, possibly since the Second World War.
Does anyone think Jeremy Corbyn has those qualities? He fought the election as though the problem didn’t exist. He has managed to take it off the political agenda. If there is another election and he becomes PM, there is virtually no chance that there will be a real Brexit. The Conservative leadership is well enough aware of the problem, but does it contain anyone, with the possible exception of David Davis, who can handle it? And even if David Davis could, he is not yet the Conservative leader and the Conservative party does not yet have an adequate majority.
One man, more than any other, got the U.K. into this mess. That man – Nigel Farage – can and must mobilise the voting potential of UKIP to enable us to get out of it. That voting potential, given the right leadership, is still there. Wisely used, it may make all the difference. There will be another election before the end of the year.