Just a few quick points on last week’s local elections in the United Kingdom and the continuing post-referendum shift in the country’s politics to the nationalist right. In many ways Britain, or rather “Greater England”, has defaulted back to its pre-Tony Blair days. The era when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party consistently used the heft of English votes to outweigh left-inclined supporters in Wales and Scotland. While it’s a crude analogy, it seems that the “Loadsamoney” class of the 1980s has morphed into the “White Van Man” of the 2000s, as English working- and lower middle-class voters attracted to the market-led philosophy of New Labour in the 1990s return to the Tory fold under Theresa May. In some ways, the Brexit plebiscite and the on-going negotiations with the European Union has provided May with a vote-winning Falkland Islands’ moment (a patriotic issue which saved Thatcher’s unpopular premiership in 1982-83 and in a different form may well do the same again for her most recent successor). Naturally this leaves Labour leader Corbyn as the Michael Foot of contemporary British politics, despised by the country’s elites, from Westminster to the metropolitan press, and likely to be ousted by a corporate-friendly contender following the general election in a few weeks.
Of course there are other factors at work here and early 21st century Britain has marked differences from its late 20th century equivalent. While the Labour Party may have been electorally weak in England since the 1980s its Welsh and Scottish mandates could never be doubted, even when threatened by embryonic progressive movements in both nations. However, whatever about Wales, the politics of Scotland have changed out of all recognition since the granting of devolution in 1999. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has become the dominant force north of the border, displacing Labour from its traditional role, leading to a straight-forward contest between itself and the Conservatives. It is remarkable to note how much Scottish politics has begun to separate in two over the last twenty years, with the pro-independence SNP, Greens and other parties on one side and the “pro-union” Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP on the other. As the press in Scotland reported this weekend, a surprising number of newly elected Labour and Conservative councillors identify with the Orange Order, a fundamentalist Protestant fraternity with deeply sectarian and racist views. That does not bode well for the future, given that a “communal” vote may well have contributed to Tory successes in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow.
The dramatic upsurge in the Conservative Party’s local election vote in Scotland has allowed the UK media to downplay a decent performance by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, somehow transforming a handful of losses into a full-blown crisis (while largely ignoring Labour’s dismal performance in the country, which has made the Tories the de facto party of unionism in the Borders and Highlands). A similar phenomenon has taken place in Wales where an increased vote by the Conservatives, coupled with a lower than expected number of losses for Labour, has somehow negated an increased level of support for Leanne Wood’s Plaid Cymru. Certainly, the Welsh nationalists did not do as well as many hoped for but a significant jump in votes and representations in the frenzied Brexit politics of Britain is no small thing. However, yet again, journalists in London have turned a modest success into a career-imperilling failure. It is no wonder that significant swathes of the electorates in Wales and Scotland are turning to independent or foreign media for information on domestic matters. The lessons of the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland have been largely lost on editorial teams in London and their outlying operations.
The preposterously-named United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) seems to be on its last legs. Having done its job, cajoling the Westminster and media establishments into facilitating a UK withdrawal from the EU, while pushing British politics to the farther right in the process, the party is now all but dead. Across the island, the Conservative Party gobbled up former UKIP votes in the local elections, especially in Wales and Scotland. This may well be a foreshadowing of the general election ahead. While in France the mainstream electorate has largely rejected the politics of the far right, in Britain the mainstream electorate has largely co-opted the politics of the far right. Though the naked chauvinism, xenophobia, sectarianism and racism of UKIP may have been diluted or excised by the Tories, and the Scottish branch of Labour, drinking from a poisoned well is never a good idea, no matter how well filtered.