The 2019 general election brought to power in the UK a party led by a big personality. Boris Johnson smashed the Labour party. Since then, the Westminster government has behaved in much the same way as those in Poland and Hungary and, more recently in Italy. We may no longer be in the European Union, but we most assuredly have been politicking in the contemporary European mould. The European outlook for social democrats and even the centre Right seems bleak. The European democratic world that emerged from WW2 and reached a triumphant zenith with the fall of the Soviet Union is in grave peril.
The UK is a potential bright spot. Keir Starmer’s Labour should be, at least, the biggest party at Westminster after the general election. But let us not wear rose tinted spectacles. Starmer’s currently massive lead in the polls is not because England (and I mean England) is experiencing some kind of Left of Centre ideological rearmament. It is because Johnson and his party have spectacularly failed. Among the most obvious consequences is the growing support for re-joining the EU. England (and I mean England) is not experiencing rekindled love for the EU. What England craves is hope. The EU holds out the prospect of a return to the stability and relative prosperity most of the country enjoyed for much of the past 40 years.
“Time for a change”
It is more than possible that Kier Starmer’s rejection of the prospect of rejoining the EU, and his fiscal Calvinism, have more to with populism than the shockingly bad public finances his new government will have to manage. It may be that in shifting Labour to the Right he is hoping to hold back an even harder form of Right-wing populism than the Tories have managed to date. Such a strategy might take him into Downing St, but surviving will be a very different matter. If the public mood is “time for a change” and there is no significant change Starmer will face an ever-more hostile Tory press, ever-louder calls for action on the EU and ever-more fractious backbenchers. In Scotland, voters who’d shifted from SNP to Labour may open the door to polling that delivers a Yes to independence vote consistently well above today’s 50%. Instability on the mainland is bound to deepen divisions and tensions in Northern Ireland. Hope is not only needed but vital.
Being Tory Lite is a bureaucrats answer to a problem that needs a big political vision. Clement Attlee, a man often characterised as a dull bureaucrat, was without doubt the most radical and visionary British prime minister of the past 100 years (closely followed by Harold Wilson). Thatcher, for all she is held up as a radical, simply took Britain back to a pre-WW2 capitalism. Labour’s continuity politics promises neither economic revival, social cohesion or a revitalised and reenergised United Kingdom. They are not even blood, sweat, toil and tears with a big map of a better land for all at the end of a hard road.
Labour and SNP must lead and have ideas
Labour must find leadership. It must find ideas that make the heart beat a little faster. It must give its activists reasons to believe they are in the Labour party to bring about big changes in Britain. Supporting PR and a return to the EU would be a start, but much more than that is needed.
The SNP, as firmly a social democratic party as you’ll find, has to do the same. Independence itself is only a means to end. It too needs big ideas and leadership that people can believe in. The SNP must paint a picture of a better Scotland. It too needs to shrug of clerking and take up real politics.
All this is about far more than the fate of the Labour party and the future of Scotland. It is about the future of Europe, the future of democracy and the future of progressive politics. The alternatives are deeply unattractive. We have had 13 years of the Tories dismantling a decent UK. But there is still a chance that the post-war consensus can recover. That’s why it’s so important that the Centre-Left flies the flag, that Labour, the SNP, Greens and LibDems stand up to be counted. If you want evidence of why it’s so vital that the moderate political forces of these islands offer hope not only here but in Europe, just read the paragraphs below.
Europe on a knife edge
Last week, the Dutch government fell, pulled apart by schisms over immigration policy. The catalyst for the collapse was a new player, the Right-wing Farmers-Citizen Movement (Dutch: BoerBurgerBeweging, BBB). It took 19% of the votes in the recent local elections. If repeated at a general election, that performance would make the BBB a powerful parliamentary force. Mark Rutte, The Netherlands long-serving PM initially said the BBB’s success was no threat to his four-party coalition. That now looks a mistaken claim. The BBB has spooked the political establishment.
In Spain, on 23rd July, the country will go to the polls, called by Prime Minster Pedro Sánchez in the wake of a poor performance by his Socialist Party in local council elections. While most polls show a narrowing of the Right’s lead, it is still in front, with less than two weeks to go until polling day. In April, Finland’s general election witnessed a Right-wing coalition winning power. Once held up by the Left as a model of Scandinavian social democratic success, Finland has resolutely turned its back on the old ways.
Last October, in Italy, the neo-Fascist Brothers of Italy party won an overall majority in the Italian parliament. Giorgia Meloni became prime minister. In Hungary, Vicktor Orban comfortably won the 2022 general election. Poland’s Civic Coalition, led by Donald Tusk, is now polling neck and neck with the ruling hard-Right Law and Justice (PiS). Across the democratic world and most especially in Europe and the USA, the politics of the rule of fair law, tolerance, compassion, opportunity and decency is in a fragile state.
The Left on our islands is fighting yesterday’s wars. The fight on the Left should be ideological, not party political. Whether Scotland or Northern Ireland stay part of the UK or not is, frankly, not the biggest deal in town. The biggest deal in town is having politicians on the Left that believe more in the values of peace, security, stability, the rule of law and the brotherhood of man than they do the ancient and creaking attitudes, structures and institutions currently known as the United Kingdom.
With the Right in the ascendency across Europe, that great bastion of cooperation, partnership and brotherhood, the European Union, may also see itself pushed hard to the Right. Spain holds the presidency of the EU until the end of this year. If that country votes in the Right a new Spanish government will go to Brussels with power and authority and with friends in Finland, Italy, Poland, Hungary and possibly The Netherlands. Britain’s historic foreign policy position was to maintain the balance of power in Europe. It looks like we must do that again. This time via the ballot box. If we don’t, we may usher in a much more unstable world.
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