Navigating Polarised Politics — Lessons from the UK Election

2019 was an eventful year on the political treadmill. Brexit fatigue, impeachment exhaustion, EU populist gains, and a strong S&P 500. Social media was loud and tribal, difficult conversations were no-platformed and ideas were trumped by identity. In a world that seems increasingly polarised — what lessons can we learn and what can we expect in 2020 — the year of the US election?

Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party win a majority in the UK election

A good place to start is the U.K. election, an event filled with hidden lessons about the future of politics. On December 12th, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party decimated Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to win the election. A sea of Tory blue swept across Labour heartlands, leaving Labour with their fewest seats since 1935 and the Conservative Party with their biggest win since 1979. Borisism, like Thatcherism, brought conservatism to the working class.

Many critics view Boris’ win as a victory for right wing populism — “Britain’s Trump” won and the UK is now stuck with a shallow, bigoted and incompetent Prime Minister is the rhetoric. An understandable viewpoint for those that can’t take Boris seriously. His dishevelled look, Trump-like hair, and effortless superiority make him the ultimate Etonian Tory toff that so many despise, especially north of the border. But there’s another story to be heard.

The Trump and Boris hair twins

Boris and Trump might be hair twins but Trump is a protectionist authoritarian, whereas Johnson is a Tory liberal. Boris is pro-free trade, Russia-sceptic and a backer of LGBTQ rights. In fact, the UK parliament is now “younger, more female, more ethnically diverse, [and] more LGBTQ” than ever before, said Boris. Trump’s nonsensical rambling remarks on “windmills” pale in comparison to Boris’ off-the-cuff recital of the Iliad in Greek. Viewing Boris’ as “Britain’s Trump” only encourages lazy thinking.

Boris, like Trump, should be judged by his actions. In a period of six months, Boris inherited a political disaster and turned it into a political triumph. He renegotiated a “non-negotiable” Brexit deal, defeated Marxist Corbynism and neutered Farage’s populist right. Love him or loathe him, he has done what no other modern western conservative leader has done. His cheerful version of national conservatism has calmed anti-immigration fervour and dismantled the political left and right. Boris has brought politics back to the economic and social centre and western democracies should take note.

Why do so few realise this? As always, look no further than social media. Shortly after the election, the number one trending hashtag on UK Twitter was #CorbynWasRight. Strange given Corbyn’s colossal defeat. Piers Morgan, the co-host of Good Morning Britain, led the bemusement by tweeting: “So #CorbynWasRight is Britain’s current No1 trend. Good old Twitter, always 100% wrong about absolutely everything”. Boris might be popular but Corbyn is the populist when it comes to social media.

Scottish historian and Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson, found exactly this after his panic dive into social media data two days prior to the election. In summary, out of more than 12 million Facebook interactions, across all UK candidates pages, Corbyn led with 47% of the share, more than twice the share of Johnson’s 21%. Boris had 1.3 million Twitter followers versus Corbyn’s 2.3 million and the Conservatives spent just 38% of Labour’s total advertising spend. Even the Liberal Democrats and environmental groups outspent the Conservatives on advertising. Maybe we aren’t so manipulated by social media after all.

Despite Corbyn’s social media dominance, people did not buy his far left views. Political parties that are lurching to the far left are losing the working class vote. Corbyn, the European leader most heralded by the radical left in the U.S., lost seats in areas where the Tories barely campaigned and had been Labour voters since before World War II.

Boris and his strategist Dominic Cummings understood this. They also understood their own party’s unpopularity and forged a new conservatism that appealed to the working class by spending on hospitals, schools and science while honouring the result of the EU referendum. The simple slogan of “Get Brexit Done” worked. The country wanted to move on.

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor

Boris and Cummings are onto something very few have grasped. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in what might be the best profile of Boris yet:

“[T]here is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.”

Fortunately there’s an alternative for the E.U., but it’s not the current approach of deeper integration, as Ian Kershaw explains in his New York Times article:

“Europe has changed extraordinarily since World War II. It has become a continent of democracies (some more so than others), and of civil societies. The military play little role in domestic politics. It has learned to cooperate and negotiate, not resort to armed force, to resolve problems. And it has, at its centre, as its most powerful and influential country, a peaceful internationalist Germany — the starkest imaginable contrast to the Germany that trampled human rights into the dust in the 1930s and 1940s and almost destroyed European civilization.”

“So, perhaps the elusive search for a European identity is unnecessary, as long as citizens of Europe’s individual nation-states are committed to upholding the common European principles of peace, freedom, pluralist democracy and the rule of law; to sustaining the material well-being that underpins that commitment; and to striving to strengthen wherever possible the bonds of transnational cooperation and friendship.”

Should the E.U. take national, rather than European, identity into account then it would not be unreasonable to speculate that over the next decade the E.U. will closely resemble its current appearance. If not, and the path toward deeper integration and a European identity is pursued, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that “Brexit [might] be a footnote in a much larger European story.”

European leaders must understand that it is difficult for individuals to feel any affinity with an organisation when the degree of heterogeneity within it has become too extreme and the organisation too large. As a result, people will fragment back into their subsidiary identity groups, and in some cases those might be national groups, precisely what we are seeing in the E.U. today. It is therefore necessary that individuals feel some sort of affinity to the structures that they find themselves in and being one three hundredth millionth of an entity is to be too much of a non-entity, particularly when there’s a smaller national identity to be found.

Although the continent should fear the far right, it should not necessarily fear people who have an affinity with their nation state, especially given today’s peaceful and prosperous Europe. Nationalism should not be seen as a political illness doomed for disastrous consequences. Europe can exist peacefully with individual nation states. As philosopher Yoram Hazony said in his book The Virtue of Nationalism:

“Nationalism is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind as much as possible under a single political regime”.

Saying this, we mustn’t forget the dark side of extreme nationalism and its link to racism and xenophobia. However, we must also understand that nation states bind people together, provide the “we” of a traditional community and help blunt the sharp edges of globalisation. Boris’ victory of national conservatism is an indication of this trend and Yoram Hazony’s book might put this into world historical perspective.

The failure of Jeremy Corbyn serves as a lesson to the left of centre social democrat parties, in the E.U. and U.S., that are increasingly moving toward the radical left. The failure of the left is a large contributor to Trump’s election — not Russian collusion. If the American left want to fare better than their European counterparts, they urgently need to stay close to the political centre. Veering rapidly to the radical left will only result in an even more radical fall.

Most of us agree that Trump is impulsive, narcissistic, ignorant, often dishonest and his character is not something to aspire to. However, swathes of Americans and Europeans seem to live in an anti-Trump echo chamber. Everything Trump does is wrong. You would think that those in the anti-Trump camp would go out their way to be the opposite to Trump — informed, mature and reasonable. But, unfortunately, the anti-Trump echo chamber has become a mirror image of Trump himself.

We have to be clear that not everything Trump does is wrong. It’s understandable that people are nostalgic of the Obama days, particularly his calming and rational presence. But we should judge all leaders by their actions, not just their words (or tweets). For instance, how many know that Obama deported three million illegal immigrants, dropped an average of 72 bombs per day in 2016 (that’s three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day) across seven Muslim countries and was in the same war for his entire eight year term? All of which are presidential records.

The Trump and Obama personas

Anti-Trump echo chambers only rile up his supporters and, again, encourage lazy thinking. We need to delve further than the media perceptions of Obama “the lovely family guy” and Trump “the warmonger”. In today’s world we protest Trump’s visit to Buckingham Palace but lay out the red carpet for Xi Jinping, who’s detaining over 1 million Uighur Muslim’s in detention camps.

The Democrats endless chase of trying to remove Trump from office is not doing them any favours. A transparently partisan impeachment vote in the House followed by a fair trial and acquittal in the Senate will seriously damage the Democrats while sparking an internal war between its moderate and left-wing factions. This battle within the Democrats will also lead them to nominating a weak compromise candidate. If this happens then it’s most likely game over for the Democrats in November. They are up against a president who has stuck by his word, adding more than 7 million jobs, achieving the lowest unemployment level in half a century and smashing all expectations when it comes to the economy.

These components coupled with Boris’ victory sends out a warning to the Democrats. As things stand, they will be decimated by Trump in November, particularly if they nominate Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The two most left-leaning candidates of a generation might be winning over the youth of today but they will not win the middle-America vote, let’s face it.

Although the UK election provides many lessons for the E.U. and U.S., the U.K. is still not out of the woods. The north-south divide is stronger than ever and the goal posts have shifted since Scotland’s “once in a lifetime vote” on independence in 2014. Unlike the anti-immigration, isolation nationalist parties splintering the E.U., the Scottish National Party (SNP) promotes a multicultural brand of nationalism. This centre left “progressive nationalism” has resonated with Scottish voters.

As Tom Devin, history professor at the University of Edinburgh stated:

“Boris Johnson is the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish nationalism that the SNP have had since Margaret Thatcher. His persona, background, the fact that people regard him as duplicitous and a phoney, none of that goes down well in Scotland.”

Boris Johnson and Ian Blackford clash in Commons

The SNP could not have asked for better circumstances going into the UK election. But Boris is not taking the chance of a second Scottish referendum lightly. He cares about the union and has set up a “Union Unit” to persuade Scots to vote no in any future referendum. This hint of a change of tactics was seen at the Prime Minister Questions this week in the House of Commons when Boris frustratingly responded to SNP’s Ian Blackford:

“The problem with the SNP is that Scotland is the highest taxed part of the UK, the deficit is six times the UK average, maths and science in schools is going down in the PISA rankings unlike any other part of the UK; that is not the fault of the pupils, it is the fault of the Government in Scotland under the SNP for not giving them the chances they deserve because they are obsessed with breaking up the United Kingdom.”

The Tories have already identified SNP’s weak spots and he’s holding Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister to account. They’re also expected to spend lavishly in Scotland and strategists are currently looking at how to deploy cash in a way that doesn’t cross too blatantly into the devolved administrations territory. Government aids and the strategic phrase of “Better Together” might just work.

Us Scots have a tremendous pride for our country. The Braveheart-like passion to support any sporting team facing a national England squad is part and parcel of Scottish life. At first, Scottish independence sounds great, but is it really worth throwing away several successful centuries of collaboration with the English? Do we really want to turn our back on one union just to join another? Does Scotland really want to be governed by Brussels?

The point is that not every nation wants or needs political independence. If they do, then there needs to be a very very good reason. Leaving a globally powerful and respected United Kingdom to become the Belarus of the west is not very convincing.

This along with the SNP’s own failings and likelihood that Boris’ unpopularity in Scotland is overestimated, points towards an intact United Kingdom going forward, but it‘s a close call and only time will tell.

If we are to succeed going forward, whether it’s the U.K., E.U., or U.S., it is important that we distinguish (the political) right from wrong. Any party today that supports, for example, open border policies are described as centrist while parties which challenge this have been labelled “far right”, “racist”, and “fascist”. Most individuals know that completely open borders (the view of the far left) and completely closed borders (the view of the far right) are both wrong. The truth is in the middle and it changes depending on the circumstances of each decade. Not every party that challenges the notion of completely open borders is far right and using such serious terms towards any party that does not toe the social democrat consensus is dangerous. Blurring these lines is wrong because distinctly dangerous groups get confused with harmless ones. This outdated game does not allow us to understand and deal with our neighbours and friends.

University campuses no-platforming

This highlights the importance of open debate between the political left and right. No-platforming people just because their views oppose your own is not a democracy, does not represent free speech, and will only exacerbate the problem. Ideas need to be shared, tested and discarded when appropriate. This is only done through intellectual debate. Removing controversial figures from social media and university debates on the premise that it will make bad ideas go away is completely flawed. Banning speeches and ideas will only make them fester underground. The way to defeat bad ideas is with good ideas and this can only be done through discourse and debate.

Politics can be complex but if there’s one thing to learn, it is to stay rational in what seems to be an increasingly irrational world. If the left and right can talk, and people continue to maintain an affinity to the structures they’re in, then we can be pretty sure that politics will continue to toe the line of the centre. The UK election provides a great example of how to do this and the trend toward national conservatism, I believe, can be expected to continue in 2020.

Interested in the latest science and technology shaping the world of tomorrow… along with the odd political dabble.