When the Brexit Referendum (remember that? – it was five years ago, and seems like half a lifetime) was won by the Leave campaign there was much talk about which other countries might follow the UK’s lead and try and leave the EU. Italy and France, with their successful populist movements, were suggested alongside newer and poorer members such as Slovakia and Hungary, where the single market is not a popular concept.
In those five years, no other EU member has sought to leave. In fact much of the internal bickering has died down, as the virtues of being an EU member are now seen as more important.
The UK has also become increasingly isolated, in ways it never expected to be. Far from other nations wanting to work with it as an independent country, the UK has gone to the back of the queue, as both its economic and political strength were perceived to have been tied up with EU membership, and the anti-immigrant agenda which fuelled Brexit is hardly likely to win it foreign friends.
But five years ago Theresa May was in charge, if you can call it that. Now the UK has shot itself in both feet by making BoJo the Clown its Prime Minister, and confirming him in power, with a Brexit-majority parliament, just when it seemed that Brexit could be reversed.
Johnson is regarded as a joke by everyone other than Donald Trump, who regarded him as an imbecile. His serial lying and multiple abuses of power are often highlighted by the European press, while the UK’s isn’t interested because they are no longer news
The subtext of these European press stories is not, “this is what happens when you leave the EU” but “how has this once great nation, the envy of the world, fallen to the depths of this man?” The rest of the world continues to watch in amazement as the harm Brexit is doing unfolds it, and BoJo and Co. keep lying and cheating and corrupting everyone around them, with the UK’s institutions apparently unable to do anything about it.
Therefore it was reasonable to expect a backlash against Johnson’s Brexiteer Conservatives at the first electoral test they have had to face since the 2019 parliamentary elections, the local elections held earlier this month. But it didn’t happen.
The Conservatives gained seats, Labour lost, the others trod water. Though there were distinct local variations in the voting, the results confirmed the recent trend of the Conservatives gaining in traditional Labour territory, and holding their own in most other places, when exactly the opposite should be happening.
How are we to explain this?
The answer is simple: there is a lot wrong with the Conservatives, but there is even more wrong with everyone else. BoJo is there because the others have all messed up. His mistakes may be spectacular, but not enough people care because at least he is fun.
The UK has become a circus, but its voters have no alternative vision to set against it. So they may as well make hay while they can, whatever horrors may be around the corner they have boxed themselves into.
Stockholm is better than nothing
On the same day as the local elections the Conservatives also convincingly won the parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, exactly the sort of traditional working class town which has voted Labour out of habit for the past century. This election provided the quote of the election: a Hartlepool-based caller to LBC Radio who stated that he voted Conservative because the Tories had given the town nine food banks, when Labour hadn’t given them any.
“Food banks” are places where people obtain food donated by retailers, churches and individuals if they can’t afford to buy any. They used to be associated with street homeless, and people in extreme poverty.
Now they are increasingly used by working families who cannot afford to make ends meet, and the Conservatives have rejoiced in the national humiliation of having an extensive food bank network, and the degrading of the people who now rely on it. The other parties want to try and improve living standards and national prosperity to make food banks obsolete, but the Conservatives are happy to shovel people off into lives of continual dependency, as no one wants to give opportunities to people so useless they have to go to food banks.
This has persuaded some commentators to decry Conservative voters in Hartlepool as mentally ill, people suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”. In fact it is not about bonding with your abuser, but seeking any alternative to what you have.
The Conservatives are right when they say that Labour has taken places like Hartlepool for granted. Assured of the parliamentary seat, and control of the local council, Labour has no real interest in improving anyone’s life.
If people stay poor they stay Labour, and what the Labour Party says in such places goes. No one wants to hear their concerns unless they fit Labour priorities of the time, and these are decided by party managers, not the local residents or party members, as the members always used to complain at the party conference, which is supposed to set party policy.
It is these very places which are now voting Conservative, and more than any other have put that party in power. In these old industrial towns Labour is the Establishment, not the Tories. It is that Establishment, whatever its political label, which has let those people down.
Boris Johnson goes over the heads of the political system directly to the voters. He does it successfully because although he is a Conservative, the worse off people are the more conservative their instincts get: for example, people on welfare are too scared to look for jobs because they know what to do to get their meagre welfare benefits, but a job is a leap into the unknown, and almost all the benefits go if they get one.
The Establishment is to blame for everything, and Brexit and BoJo the Clown are the cure. Any attack on these twin deities is an Establishment plot against the poor, which is being made for bad reasons, rather than because there is any truth or logic in it.
In any country there are those who feel abandoned, dispossessed, deprived of their rights. The Labour Party came into existence to represent the interests of these people, and still sees that as its purpose.
But Labour has always worked within the system to do it, and only succeeded in keeping the deprived in their place, thinking this will keep party bosses in power for ever. Now a Conservative has set out to bypass or tear down whatever gets in the way of “the people”, he is reaping the whirlwind Labour created, just as the Liberals used to do when they were the “alternative” party, and as UKIP and other assorted nutters did when the Liberals became too successful at local government level to wear the “alternative” mantle any more.
Libertad, Libertad, Orientales!
The UK used to be seen as a model of a parliamentary democracy. There are plenty of other parliamentary democracies around, which could equally be seen in that light, but the British model, rather than, say, the Danish, has been taken as the starting point whenever a new county wishes to devise a similar system.
BoJo the Clown is undermining that model, and every institution which is part of it, by claiming they are all part of an Establishment plot against ordinary people. He is trying to establish a new model of perpetual culture war, in which his supporters are outsiders perpetually trying to destroy the insiders, oblivious to the fact he is as much an insider as anyone else.
This is most definitely not the British model, or the rise of Labour would have led to revolution, as it did in Russia and Germany around the same time. What BoJo is trying to do is not back Britain, but turn it into Uruguay, with the passive consent of a population who know nothing about the place.
After Uruguay became independent in 1828 conflict soon arose between the conflicting visions and ambitions of rival independence leaders, as so often happens. The two sides fought a civil war which dragged on for seventy years, on and off, with global powers eagerly supporting one side or the other, prolonging the conflict, to suit their own purposes.
The two sides soon developed distinct political visions. The Colorados were liberal, representing business interests and broadening base of participation and wealth, whilst the Blancos were conservative, protectionist and agrarian.
The settlement following the final defeat of the Blancos in 1904 cemented this separation: the Colorados retained control of the capital, and the commercial and industrial mechanisms, and therefore effective power even if the Blancos won an election. The Blancos were allowed to retain control of the countryside – conservatives, but outsiders, dispossessed and with a label hanging over them.
The Colorados, though ostensibly more liberal and welcoming of the outsider, fell prey to the classic cancer of liberalism: having widened the base to include themselves, they became an exclusive Establishment in their own right. In the UK the Labour Party emerged as a response, in Uruguay the Tupumaros, an urban guerilla movement, come to represent the dispossessed – but its members were former Blancos, not Colorados, which is why they were also ideologically exclusive, like Brexiteers.
Those Tupumaros eventually become the Broad Front which ran Uruguay for fifteen years, but remained an anti-Establishment force, both socialist in politics and conservative in instinct. It was defeated in 2019 because it had come to be seen as a corrupt and internally divided force, just like the others, as the various UK “alternative” parties have become.
There was a time when Uruguay had a European level economy. Now it is again a Third World country, dependent on aid packages and living off past glories, despite its still considerable industrial and agricultural capacity.
This is what gave the Tupumaros their opening to transfer from guerilla group to mainstream political force, just as the racist and bigoted voters who felt no one represented them have flocked to the BoJo and Brexit banner. The UK Establishment should never have left anyone behind, with an economy that big behind them. But they did, and now, increasingly, the economy isn’t there either.
As a member of the EU, the UK remained one of the world’s largest economies. This led a sizeable chunk of its population to believe that others they considered alien were getting visible benefits that should be rightfully theirs.
Now the services on which the UK economy is based are relocating to the EU, exports are being hit and industry and agriculture can’t get workers. Nothing the UK has done since Brexit has plugged these holes. Welcome to Uruguay, and the cycle of endless blame, poverty, anger and exploitation which a developed country thinks is beneath it.
Rally round the hole in the ground
It has been suggested that if the anti-Conservative parties reach some sort of agreement they can maximise the anti-Conservative vote and reclaim the country. By this is meant reclaim it for the established order, the very thing the Conservatives are supposed to represent.
This will not happen yet, because Brexit is still the overriding issue. Labour lost the 2019 parliamentary election, and these local elections, because it tried to avoid taking a position on Brexit, hoping the voters would think about other things. It hasn’t got the guts to take an electoral hit by backing rejoining the EU, like the other opposition parties, but it is taking that hit anyway because it isn’t coming out with anything better.
Eventually battle lines will be drawn: everyone will either blame Brexit for everything or blame the old Establishment for everything. Then it will be possible to fight elections on this basis.
But things will have to get much worse before there will be a wakeup call, and visibly much worse, to make the period in the EU seem like the Golden Age which Brexiteers think the years before that were. Until then, BoJo’s open culture war is more likely to descend into violence and counter violence, as neither side has a way out.
You can’t progress backwards. In Uruguay people haven’t gone back to the Colorado Establishment, which once brought in the military to rule with them, but to the more traditional outsiders, the Blancos. Only something new will work in the UK – but it will have to go through a lot of pain before a new generation are left outside by the old outsiders, and want to strike a balance between the two.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.