The U.K. Election Won’t Solve Brexit
The British election will take place on Thursday, December 12. I am betting it won’t solve Brexit. If you (American readers) think our elections are difficult to understand you should try theirs.
For my friends in England, this is the moment to load paper clips into the rubber bands stretched between thumb and forefinger and prepare to launch those unpleasant-but-not-likely-to-be-fatal missiles at my inaccuracies. I would remind any paper clip launchers, however, that I have been commended as the only American ever to properly explain the West Lothian question.
For Americans, the first problem is what to even call the country. We get by with one name that everyone knows, but they have three.
Travelers from the United States might say they are off to England even if Edinburgh is on the itinerary. Technically that is a trip to Great Britain, which includes everything on the larger of the two islands to wit: England, Scotland and Wales. You have to add Northern Ireland to achieve the concept of the United Kingdom, all of which will be voting on Thursday. Shall we agree on calling it U.K. for this story?
U.K. residents don’t vote for Prime Minister as we vote for President. They vote for a Member of Parliament for the constituency in which they live. That does not stop the party leaders from campaigning as if each vote was a vote for them personally, but it is not what happens.
Once the Parliamentary votes are cast, they count the number elected by each party and that constitutes the majority or plurality that gets to choose the Prime Minister. Parliament becomes sort of like a giant electoral college, but the choice is always the prevailing party leader, whose name is known in advance.
To the extent the system is designed (rather than the result of centuries of evolution), it is best suited to having only two parties but there are now about nine parties in the U. K. making it harder for any of them to achieve 326 seats out of the 650 at stake.
Historically, elections did not have fixed dates though something called the Fixed Term Parliaments Act now sets the interval at five years, albeit with sufficient exceptions to at least partially restore the prior system, but with more hoops to jump through.
Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative Party (aka Tories), which has 318 seats in the current Parliament – eight short of a majority. He governs thanks to the cooperation of the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Nigel Dodds, who represents Belfast in Northern Ireland. There are nine other Democratic Unionist MPs so together with the 318 Tories, they get to 328 total – a majority of two.
The problem is that the only issue that matters today is Brexit. Ireland, itself, will remain in the European Union but, presumably Northern Ireland would leave if the Brexit vote taken on June 23, 2016 were implemented.
You might recall that there have been tensions between Ireland and Northern Ireland that will not be reduced by a hard border between the two as would be required by one part of the smaller island remaining in the European Union and the other part leaving.
Nor will the situation improve for Northern Ireland if the customs formalities are observed as they cross the Irish Sea. All of that, quite understandably, makes the Democratic Unionist Party a less than reliable coalition member and helps to explain why Parliament can’t seem to agree on anything about Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour party, which has 262 seats in Parliament. He is widely viewed as totally unsuited to being Prime Minister, as he combines his own dreadful features with the worst of Bernie Sanders. He has refused to state his views, or presumably those of his party, on Brexit, which is, as noted earlier, the only issue that matters.
The U.K. has a sort of centrist party called the Liberal Democrats that holds 12 seats in Parliament.
Theoretically, the LibDems could team up with the Tories to provide a majority but there are two reasons that will not happen.
First, they did it once before and it did not turn out well. The LibDems lost many seats and much party identity during their coalition.
Second, the two parties are on the opposite side of Brexit. LibDems are remain; Tories are leave (well, mostly).
Remember the words “Remain” and “Leave.” They might be the most hated words in the U.K., but they are also two of the most important as they define the issue that continues unresolved more than three years after the vote was taken. The third largest party, with 35 seats, is the Scottish National party. They might form a coalition with Labour but never with the Tories. Scotland might so favor remaining in the European Union that it would seek its independence if it appeared the U.K. was about to be successful in leaving. That would throw the Great Britain name out of whack and create some thorny decisions relating to the ownership and berthing of nuclear submarines.
Sinn Fein has seven seats but, by Party policy, no Sinn Fein member ever goes to Parliament and obviously, therefore, never votes.
The two remaining parties are Plaid Cymru (Wales), with four seats; and the Green party, with one.
The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, has no seats in the current Parliament but might well win some in the next one. The analogy in America would be hiving off the Tea Party (Brexit) from the Republicans (Tories).
Farage, a gadfly who once served in the European Parliament and made everyone’s lives miserable, has cooperated with the Tories by agreeing not to contest seats the Tories now hold, but he has not agreed to stay out of closely contested races for the seats the Tories will need to create a majority.
The challenge in the coming election is that no party currently represented in Parliament is likely to form a government with the Tories leaving them the burden of winning eight new seats and holding on to their 318 or teaming up with Farage, who prefers to be photographed holding a pint of stout and is known for self-promotion. He might be a volatile mix with Boris Johnson, who does not like to comb his hair and does like to leave his shirt untucked. This presents a distinctive look when photographed stuck on a zipline.
If Sinn Fein keeps its seven seats and never shows up to vote, maybe the majority to form of government is reduced from 326 to 322 making the Tories’ fence slightly easier to jump.
Now, we need to address the “first past the post” question. The analogy is to horse racing in which the first horse to pass the finishing post is the winner. While that works in horse racing and in elections contested by two parties, it is less successful in multi-party races.
The average population of a constituency is about 100,000, of whom about 60,000 might be eligible voters. If, for example, six parties contest the seat, the winner might receive 12,000 to 15,000 votes – far less than a majority.
Resolving all of this is complicated, but in America, we’d look it up in the Constitution to see what to do. That is not an option in the United Kingdom. Nobody has bothered to write their constitution down, so only a tiny cadre of lawyers and Parliament wonks knows what it would say if it said anything at all.
You see, for centuries, England (the part that mattered most) relied on the “good bloke school of governance.” Most of the Members of Parliament went to the same public schools (read private in the United States) and the same universities (Oxford and Cambridge) so they all knew and adhered to the “gentleman just don’t do certain things” code.
When the toff monopoly on government broke down, out went the “gentleman just don’t do certain things” code.
Now the Members of Parliament look to their US political consultants, who have role models like Adam Schiff, Devin Nunes, Jerrold Nadler, Doug Collins, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. These are infelicitous choices when your history includes the words “good bloke.”
Add that toxic mix of role models to an unwritten constitution that can be argued about even more than a written one and don’t be surprised with what you get. And don’t lose sight of the American political consultants who happily switch sides from left- to right-leaning or vice versa during their flights from Dulles to Heathrow.
All might possibly be well if every elected official could be relied upon to follow his party’s lead. They don’t. Some get mad and resign in a cloud of dudgeon. This practice has a long tradition. Mostly honorable when matters of principle were at stake, but less honorable now that image has replaced principle.
Though my mental calculator has overheated from weighing all of the variables I am inclined to the view that Brexit will not be resolved on Thursday.
I am expecting the remaining days of campaigning to be devoted to serious fear selling pitting the unknowns of a post Brexit world against the election of the utterly unsuitable Jeremy Corbyn.
This week’s Bagehot column in The Economist is an uncharacteristic tirade against the lies being told and the nefarious tactics being used to tell them. Forget any notions of British understatement or reserve if you click on that link.
What then on Thursday?
Well, somebody wins because counting votes is not all that difficult. Either Boris Johnson forms a majority government or Jeremy Corbyn forms a coalition. The former is more likely based on polling data, and betting odds suggest the same. A minority government is also a possibility because “good blokes” prefer that to none at all.
As before the election, winning a majority does not mean a firm “leave or remain” decision will be taken. Those who are simply fed up are likely to be disappointed.
There are other answers, however, that have been barely explored at all.
The European Union would accomplish most of its goals even if it were far less intrusive on national sovereignty. The value of market access to 500 million people is far greater than the value of telling every country precisely how it has to do everything.
The European Union needs a 10th Amendment.
“The powers not delegated to the United States [European Union] by the Constitution (the European Union has one but it is much too long and much too granular), nor prohibited by it to the States (in the European Union it would be countries) are reserved to the states ( countries) respectively, or to the people.”
Those 28 words in our constitution go a long way toward explaining why the United States has lasted more than 10 times as long as the European Union.
Who would dislike it? The Brussels bureaucrats, whose powers would be curtailed, but is it worth the trade?
What percentage of 500 million E.U. residents consist of Brussels bureaucrats? Probably somewhere between 1/10 of 1% and 1/100th of 1% — an easy choice to make unless the rule makers decide their interests are more important.
The second choice for the U.K. (or at least parts of it) would be to look elsewhere. The fear of loss of European Union market access would be alleviated by a free trade alliance among the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—a revived Anglosphere.
That is a good-sized market and the US already has a trade deal with the European Union.
Even the threat of such an arrangement seems likely to frighten the EU leadership into preferring some manner of 10th amendment to the prospect of such a powerful alignment.
But, is that idea a possibility with Donald Trump as President? Likely not as much of a one. Thanks to him, today is the day the World Trade Organization runs out of judges to resolve trade disputes.
Maybe EU bureaucrats should be following the lead of Russia and Ukraine (depending on which investigation you believe) and secretly trying to steal the 2020 election for Donald Trump, thus thwarting the Anglosphere idea?
Expect those who are fed up with more than three years of Brexit blather to be disappointed on Thursday.
See you again before the next U.K election, which seems likely to be soon.