UK politics in ferment
Updated 21:22, 25-Nov-2019
Mike Cormack
A Union Jack flag flutters in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, November 5, 2019. /VCG Photo

A Union Jack flag flutters in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, November 5, 2019. /VCG Photo

Editor's note: Mike Cormack is a writer, editor and reviewer mostly focusing on China, where he lived 2007-2014. He edited Agenda Beijing and is a regular book reviewer for South China Morning Post. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The UK general election now ongoing is proving to be a highly unusual one. It is not so much about turbulence in voting intentions: the three main parties – Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrats - are all polling roughly where they have been for the last few years, give or take a few percents, at about 40, 29, and 16 percent. (There is the new factor of the Brexit Party, but it is polling about the same as UK Independence Party had been in previous elections at about eight percent: not enough to gain even one MP). The overwhelming sense of Brexit weariness and political cynicism is also unchanged.

The campaigns are, however, offering radical manifestos, as though to compensate for public indifference. Labour is offering nationalizations, house building, industrial investment, tax rises, and a Brexit referendum. The Tories are offering a very hard Brexit, taking the UK out of the EU's Single Market and Customs Union, while also pledging more public spending and lower taxes for low-paid workers.

But perhaps the greatest tumults are happening on the personal and constituency levels. The Conservatives, having become the party of Brexit, must-win working-class constituencies which voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. These areas have not voted for them in living memory. Labour is, on the other hand, has become under Jeremy Corbyn more popular in middle-class areas, especially those with large student populations. What we, therefore, see here is a realignment of British politics, divided by Brexit rather than by class.

But the greatest disruption is in the personnel of each party. While there is, of course, always a fair degree of turnover at general elections as some MPs retire and others are ousted, this election is seeing a remarkable number standing down of their own accord. And it's not just the number of MPs choosing to go. Both senior and relatively youthful MPs are withdrawing from Westminster. Philip Hammond was Chancellor of the Exchequer just five months ago, and thus essentially the number two man in the government, yet he is standing down. Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party (though no ally of leader Jeremy Corbyn), is also standing down. Others departing include Amber Rudd, a former Conservative Home Secretary; Nicky Morgan, another former Secretary of State, aged just 47; Rory Stewart, who was challenging to be leader of the Conservative party and prime minister just five months ago; Sir Oliver Letwin, a senior backbencher and former shadow chancellor; Jo Johnson, brother of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has only been an MP for nine years; Labour's Stephen Twigg, who caught the world's eye on defeating senior Conservative Michael Portillo in 1997, and is still only 53.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn answer questions during the ITV Leaders Debate at Media Centre in Salford, England, November 19, 2019 /VCG Photo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn answer questions during the ITV Leaders Debate at Media Centre in Salford, England, November 19, 2019 /VCG Photo

Naturally, some are retiring after long service. Ken Clarke has been an MP since 1970. Nicholas Soames (the grandson of Winston Churchill) is now aged 71. But to have so many departing voluntarily is highly unusual, and says something about politics in modern Britain. Being an MP has become, in many ways, a rather nasty and joyless affair.

The reasons for this are numerous. Social media is one culprit. Women MPs, in particular, receive scarcely believable torrents of abuse, from death threats to verbal insults. (Diane Abbot, the UK's first black female MP, receives around 51 abusive tweets per day). Brexit has also split the UK in two, leading to a toxic political and cultural divide between "Remoaners" and "Brexiteers". All of this has come on top of a culture where MPs were already rarely trusted and believed, following Boris Johnson's repeated lies to Parliament and the public, the 2009 expenses scandal, Labour's anti-Semitism issues, the Liberal Democrats reneging on university fees, Tony Blair taking the UK to war in Iraq on plainly false premises, and countless further examples.

MPs are also at increased risk of genuine physical harm. Three years ago, the MP Jo Cox was murdered during the Brexit referendum, and since then, threats and intimidation have only increased. The Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg, for example, has twice been barracked in front of his children. Many, many female MPs report frequent violence and rape threats and stalkers. Yet the response to this has been grievously lax. One female MP said, "The response by Parliament's authorities, and sadly the police service, remains highly cavalier in the face of death threats and threats of violence. We are expected to suck it up and accept it as part of our job."

Incredibly, a large portion of the British public thinks this acceptable. A study asked respondents what they would be prepared to see happen in order to leave or remain within the EU, including whether achieving their desired political outcome was worth the risk of violence against MPs. A majority of leave voters (71 percent in England, 70 percent in Wales, and 60 percent in Scotland) thought it a "price worth paying" for Brexit.

Britain has long cherished its reputation for fairness and upholding the rule of law. Yet clearly, as seen by how many MPs are turning away from politics, the political cohesion of the UK is cracking, its commitment to the law in marked decline. There is nothing in the universe that says a nation must always remain humane, moderate, and tolerant. If its citizens and political leaders turn away from that, there are countless examples from history that show where that path leads. The current crop of British politicians may not have the qualities of their illustrious forebears (though, of course, it is always easy to remember the greats, while the mediocre slip into historical disregard). Their very turning away from the political process may augur something much worse yet to come.

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