Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
– From “The Second Coming”, W. B. Yeats
The UK has completed the exercise in democracy that it wasn’t supposed to have. After almost three years of choosing to spectacularly screw up the attempt to leave the EU, the UK Government took a rightfully earned kicking. The principle “Opposition” party, Labour, also could not come to terms with its own ambiguous position on Brexit and was also pummelled. The UK has joined the ranks of many countries around the world where the balance of power has shifted from the comparative centre of the Establishment to the more radical fringes. We’re living now in interesting times.
The Overall Picture
The biggest winner in terms of votes and seats is the Brexit Party – Nigel Farage’s new political vehicle pitched entirely at Leave voters hacked off at the Tories’ mishandling of exit process. It’s hard to blame them and it’s easy to see why so many would flock to that banner. There aren’t many other options for the Hacked-off Leave Demographic who want to give the Tories a kicking. Labour are broadly pro-Brexit but have couched their policy in caveats to the point of utter obscurity and in a way that belies the reality of the negotiations. Calling for the Withdrawal Agreement to be re-opened and softened is about as likely to succeed as calling for it to be re-opened and hardened. Calling for a General Election makes sense for a party that seeks political power but won’t change the basic options ahead of the UK (Deal, No Deal or Rescind Article 50) and calling for a Peoples’ Vote merely shunts the locus of responsibility for making that decision. In the end, the two “main” UK parties couldn’t even scrape together 25% of the vote between them.
And none of the other parties were ever going to be attractive to a hacked-off Leaver voter. The Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK are solidly Remain as are the SNP and Plaid Cymru if said Leaver is in Scotland or Wales and isn’t antagonistic to their respective nationalist causes.
And the ragged remains of UKIP – floundering without Farage’s charisma and near-constant media presence – has morphed itself into a mash of xenophobic flailings banking on the dubious celebrity of racists and Youtubers.
The other newcomers to the UK’s political stage was Change UK – formed out of pro-Remain rebels in both the Tory and Labour party (mostly the latter) brought to breaking point by their respective parties’ Brexit policy as well as various other grievances with their former leaders.
It’s worth taking a moment here to consider the difference between the Brexit Party and Change UK. Both parties were running on a single issue – Brexit. Both were appealing to the hacked-off demographic. So why the massive difference in voting patterns where one party won the UK tally by some margin and the other couldn’t get more votes than a party that stood in only 8.3% of the country?
Part of it is charisma and exposure – Chuka Umunna is not Nigel Farage and can never appeal to that kind of populism – but the largest part will be the nature of the protest vote. As stated before, the hacked-off Leaver only had one party to vote for – Brexit. A hacked-off Remainer annoyed at Labour’s unclear position or a Tory voter who appreciated the economic benefits of the EU would have several options including the Lib Dems and the Greens (with the latter also appealing to those who recognise the looming climate emergency). Change UK – the new upstart – tried to be “radical centrists” in a world that is rejecting centrism. They never really stood a chance.
And then there are the nationalists…
The map of Scotland is unmistakable. Even in the Scottish borders – where some would say that the politics there has more in common with the rural north of England than elsewhere in Scotland – ended up looking rather distinct from the country south of here. The Tory strongholds of the borders were split badly enough by the Brexit Party (more than 50:50 in the case of Dumfries) that the SNP ended up coming in first place.
Indeed, the SNP came first in every council area except in Orkney and in Shetland where in both cases the Lib Dem vote held strong enough to keep their place at the top.
Of course, the EU seats are not calculated on a council basis – it’s only the overall result across the country that matters.
The SNP did well this weekend, picking up an additional seat whereas Labour were the biggest losers by dropping both of their seats and being wiped out. The conservatives took a hit but clung on and the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party picked up the seats vacated by Labour.
Interestingly, due to the EU’s “degressive proportionality” principle, Scotland as-part-of-the-UK has fewer seats in the EU Parliament compared to independent members of a similar size. Slovakia – population 5.4 million – has 12 MEPs compared to Scotland’s six.
If Scotland had the same number of MEPs as Slovakia and had voting patterns remained the same (which is admittedly dubious due to the effect of the Brexit Party and Change UK and their reasons for being but bear with me) then the electoral map of Scotland would have been SNP 5, Brexit 2, Lib Dem 2, Conservative 1, Labour 1, Green 1.
This is the limitation of the d’Hondt system in action. Whilst more proportional than First Past the Post, its proportionality decreases as constituencies get too small to allow smaller parties a pathway in. This problem is particularly acute in some areas of England where their EU constituency votes for as few as three MEPs.
The UK wasn’t the only place voting this week and even outside the quagmire of Brexit the Collapse of the Centre continues. The far-right is rising overall but notable standouts appear too. In Spain, Vox did far less well than expected and the Catalonian nationalists put on a corresponding good show, electing the exiled Carles Puigdemont and Antoni Comin as well as the imprisoned former vice-president Oriol Junqueras. This last electee could well prove important in EU politics. The EU – for many understandable if not totally justifiable – reasons is very reluctant to weigh in on the internal politics of member states. But now one of their MEPs is a political prisoner. This may change calculations somewhat…
In Germany, the Collapse of the Centre heralded not the speculated take-over by the AfD but with the rise of the Greens. Proving overwhelmingly popular with younger and first time voters and with environmental politics becoming more critical than ever, the Greens took just over 20% of the votes – twice as many as the AfD – and rocketed to second place behind the diminishing CDU and SPD.
Denmark, too, saw the collapse of their far right with the Danish People’s Party losing more than half of their vote share and all but one of their seats.
Overall, the Green/EFA group – the group of MEPs from Green and from moderate nationalist/autonomist parties – has increased their number of seats in the Parliament from 50 to 69 and is now represented in 15 of the 28 EU nations. Even post-Brexit, this may represent an opportunity for Scotland to build bridges and support with EU states in anticipation of our independence.
In terms of UK politics, who knows? Westminster is a complete mess now. The Tories will now spend most of the remaining time of their latest Brexit extension sorting out a leadership contest in the wake of Theresa May’s announcement to leave office. Some of those leadership candidates are fighting on a pledge to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement – despite the extension terms explicitly ruling out such an attempt – and others are fighting on a “No Deal” platform. The Collapse of the Centre has pulled the Tory party to the extremes of itself and this is likely to get worse as we approach the October 31st deadline.
“Please do not waste this time”, Donald Tusk said when the EU granted this latest extension. Hoo boy, did the UK do the opposite of this. As I write this there are apparently only 50 sitting days of Parliament left before October 31st and half of them will be under a new PM…
Labour is similarly in a mess but is slowly converging on the option of supporting a People’s Vote on the final deal under any circumstances – somewhat too late for one to be arranged, of course.
Where UK politics goes after this is anyone’s guess. My previous predictions about Brexit – even when couched in the language of a post-apocalyptic fiction because I didn’t think anyone would believe it – suffered from the delusion that the folk making the decisions were acting with anything like some common sense or strategy.
Whenever I think about the possibility of a General Election now – especially in the circumstances of another extension or a revocation of Article 50, I don’t think about Corbyn sweeping into Government. I can’t shake a darker image. My long regretted joke about “Chancellor of the Exchequer Rees-Mogg and his able deputy PM Johnson”. Or worse.
Scotland needs to get out now. We need to chart our own course. One noted Unionist campaigner recently told me that their vision for Scotland within the UK is “the same but more of it”. I rather think we’ve had quite enough of this mess – and that’s without going into the utter disasters of UK policy such as those noted in the UN poverty report last week.
Thinking about the wider European results though, I’ve been struck by an idea. This is just speculation but I wonder if a pattern is emerging within the Collapse of the Centre. The main parties in a country stagnate or implode and voters look for a “protest vote, any protest vote”. Naturally, it’ll go to the loudest, most populist, most gutfeely person on the stage. Trump. Wilders. Le Pen. Farage.
Later though, the energy of the protest wears a little and folk want a little more. They start wanting actual solutions. “Brexit” gives way to “But What For?”. The populist, if they cannot answer that question, sees their base evaporate as voters drift to someone with an actual narrative and policies to back it up. What does Farage plan to do about the NHS? What’s his opinion on energy policy? Does he have a solution for the climate emergency? Or local government funding?
Maybe I’m being hopeful but maybe England will find its way out too and rediscover its own sense of identity and its place in the continually evolving world.
I really, genuinely hope it does. It’d be good to have nice, friendly neighbours rather than a rowdy roomate.