British Politics: The magic tree that keeps on giving

 

Dr Andre Barrinha, Senior Lecturer in Politics & IR at Canterbury Christ Church University, comments on the outcome the UK General Election.

Another election, another remarkable night of political drama. Whilst much is still to be decided, there are three important lessons that we can take from yesterday’s election:

Never kick an underdog. It’s a fact of life: the British electorate does not like to be told what to do. Nobody does, but in the UK that can be very costly when it comes to Election Day. They did not like to be told to vote to stay in the EU and they certainly did not appreciate Theresa May’s call for what she was expecting to be a lap of honour. Up in Scotland, Nicholas Sturgeon might have just learned that hubristic behaviours should not be repeated.

The first past the post system is broken. If it is confirmed that Conservatives and Labour are split by around two points, then the difference of over 50 seats between them is a clear sign of a system that does not adequately represent people’s views. A similar case could be made for the UKIP results in 2015. The poisonous chalice that was the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum did not allow for a serious conversation on the benefits of other voting systems. Given that there are five different voting systems in use in the UK, tradition or cultural specificity can no longer be seen as an argument.

There are now more Conservative MPs from Scotland than panda bears in Edinburgh Zoo.

Ruth Davidson stole the show. Regardless of one’s political views, the leader of the Conservative party in Scotland managed what most people would find impossible two years ago: to have more MPs in Scotland than panda bears in the Edinburgh zoo. From today, there will be 13 Conservative MPs (whereas the number of panda bears did not increase last night, and will therefore, remain at two). By accomplishing such a feat, Ruth Davidson seriously damaged Nicholas Sturgeon call for a second referendum and, most importantly, made it possible for Theresa May to form a government.

 

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The Snap election and the risk of ‘No Scottish mandate’

On 8 June 2017 voters will be at the polls again. The Prime Minister has called a snap election in order to bolster her plan for Brexit and unite the country.

But will another election really unite the country? Highly unlikely. Polls suggest that the SNP will not lose any of the 56 seats it won in 2015. In fact, it is not entirely implausible to argue that the Conservatives, may lose their only Scottish seat. The incumbent Secretary of State for Scotland held onto his seat in 2015, but with a feeble majority of only 798 votes. This will indeed be a key target seat for the SNP, but the Tories are equally enthusiastic about usurping the Nationalists.

What happens, however, if the Conservatives win a majority of seats in England but have no seats in Scotland? This predicament, oft-described as the’ Doomsday Scenario’, is not new and was increasingly discussed during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. If the Conservatives lose their only Scottish seat, the phrase ‘no Scottish mandate’ will once again be bandied around. It worked in the 1980s and 90s to fuel support for a Scottish parliament, might it also work to boost support for independence?

Since 2014, the SNP’s electoral juggernaut has shown very few signs of slowing down. The upcoming general election is not a referendum, but will no doubt be framed in Scotland as a dichotomous choice: Union versus Independence. The vote on June 8 has already been dubbed the ‘Brexit election’, but in Scotland the dominant issue – once again – will be independence and Indyref2.

Paul Anderson is a PhD researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University. His main research focuses on territorial autonomy and secessionist movements in western plurinational democracies.

Theresa May’s Three-Way Brexit Fight – And Why She Cannot Win

On the 29th of March 2017, the government of the United Kingdom officially informed the President of the European Council about their intention to leave the European Union within the next two years. This so-called triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union will start a process, which will be complex with many unknown and unforeseen developments, challenges and problems on the way.

Theresa May has made it clear that she wants the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen the Union, to improve the lives of British people and to work for both the UK and the EU.  However, this seems more and more unlikely. The Prime Minister, and her negotiation team are not just fighting a one-way battle with the EU-negotiation team about the terms of Brexit and a successor agreement that will give the UK access to the European market, they are actually involved in a three-way fight. A fight that is full of contradictions and centrifugal forces, and one that Theresa May cannot win.

Fight Number 1: The European Dimension

The UK government will spend the next two years negotiating with an EU delegation on the terms of Brexit. Some of the negotiations will be relatively simple, such as on air traffic rules and even the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will be secured relatively quickly as there are no major obstacles on a solution for these issues on either side. Other issues, such as which access the UK will get to the European single market, the size of the final bill that the UK will have to pay and the future of free movement will be much tougher. The European Parliament has already announced that they will veto any deal that will phase out free movement early, and countries in Eastern Europe will likely veto anything that will affect financial contributions promised to them in years to come. There is still an ongoing debate about whether no deal would be a good deal. However, the complexity of reaching a deal becomes obvious when one thinks about the key priorities for the European side. There are three priorities the EU negotiators will focus on. First, the rights of EU citizens in the UK. This will be secured relatively quickly as it just needs an insurance that Brits in the EU will treated the same way. Second, the final bill the UK has to pay before leaving, for example for pension contributions to British staff that served in the Commission. Here agreement will be hard to find and a lot will depend on Germany as the now even bigger contributor to the EU to pick up some of the bill and give the UK a “better” deal. However, the third key priority for EU negotiators and linked to a trade deal with the UK, is the issue of demonstrating that leaving the European Union has serious consequences. Many saw Brexit as a first step to the EU falling apart. Germany, France, and most countries in Eastern Europe will want to prevent any impression that this is the case and that a country can leave the EU, stop paying into the budget but still enjoy all the benefits. The Germans particularly will want to set an example and Angela Merkel has announced this immediately after the Brexit vote. So, it is by no way clear that there will be a deal, and what kind of deal it will be.

© stuart anthony via flickr.com

Fight Number 2: The Home Front

On the 28th of March 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a new referendum on independence. This vote, a day before the triggering of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, will set the tone for months and indeed years to come. While the UK government has dismissed the Scottish request for a second referendum within a decade, it will not be able to uphold this ignorance for long. Scottish people might not (yet) be convinced that independence is the better option, but most of them are convinced that Scotland should have the choice and that the UK government should not decide on Scotland’s future. There is a good chance that by the time Scotland will have a second referendum on independence (and this is just a question of time), there might be a majority for independence. In addition to the constitutional crisis in regards to Scotland, Brexit has also opened up old wounds in Northern Ireland, with Sein Fein using the topic to mobilise support for a referendum on the unification of the Irish island. The potential of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland might create new potential for conflict, but most importantly it will create huge disturbances for people and businesses on both sides of the border. In light of this, who knows, maybe the people in Northern Ireland can easier live with a united Ireland than a new hard border.

Finally, the business community in the UK will put pressure on the government to ensure access to the European market, or in case this cannot be received, to receive special deals. A special deal has already been agreed for Nissan, it is hard to see why other car manufacturers in the UK will not demand the same terms of a deal from the government.

With a constitutional crisis fully evolving, a fragile economy that has to be preparing for the worst, and many regions, Councils and communities in the UK expecting whatever affect the Brexit deal will have on them, it is hard to see how the government will be able to deal with all of these competing and in some cases contradicting demands and find a solution that everyone can live with.

Fight Number 3: The International Dimension

Finally, Brexit will force the UK government to think about the UK’s international role. This of course offers a lot of opportunities. However, in reality that international environment is about as hostile as it could be to the UK as a new actor in trade and world influence. In the USA, President Trump is about to divide his country and the international community with it. In Russia, President Putin is probing the patience of NATO. In China, the Communist Party, while formally committed to free markets, is preparing for a more competitive and protectionist era in world trade. At the same time, the UK will only be allowed to formally negotiate trade deals once it has left the European Union (until then, this remains a competence of the EU Commission). While trade deals with some countries will be signed relatively quickly, especially trade deals with the major UK markets outside of Europe (such as the US, Canada, Australia, India, etc.) will take years to negotiate. Even if trade agreements can be negotiated, even if the time span is shorter than expected, it is nevertheless hard to see how the current international environment and the limited ability and experience that the UK government has to negotiate new deals will not have an impact economically, politically and socially.

It Burns, Burns, Burns – The Ring of Fire

Brexit is the result of an ill-informed and unnecessary referendum. The British people will now have to live with the consequences. However, as has been demonstrated above, there are at least three major fights the government has at its hands in order to make any Brexit deal work and ensure a better future post-Brexit. The centrifugal forces that will hit the UK, the economic impact of the Brexit negotiations, and the future development of the international system will all have substantial impacts on the UK in the near future. Even if the UK had the best negotiators in the world (and it does not), even if Europeans wanted to give the UK a good deal (and they do not), even if the international environment was more receptive and positive (and it is not), even if all of these circumstances were met, it would still be hard to see how Theresa May and the UK government can win the fight on all these three fronts. What has happened is that in recent months more and more fires were lit by the government and fire does, what fire does – it spreads and grows out of control. Eventually, it burns.

Dr Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University.

INDYREF2: A bold but unsurprising move from Nicola Sturgeon

The gauntlet is down.

To the surprise of many Nicola Sturgeon announced today that she will seek a second referendum on Scottish independence to be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. She is set to ask the Scottish Parliament for permission to do so next, yet given that there is a majority of pro-independence MSPs (the SNP and the Greens), this part should be pretty straightforward. The first hurdle will come from the UK Government which will have to approve the Scottish first minister’s request for a section 30 order transferring temporary powers to Holyrood to hold a referendum. Legally, Prime Minister Theresa May could refuse to grant legal permission to hold a referendum, but I think this looks unlikely. Jeremy Corbyn has also confirmed that the Labour Party would not block such a request.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon | photo via firstminister.gov.scot

What is likely, however, is that the Prime Minister will play hard ball on the issue, particularly over timing. In the previous independence referendum, the then First Minister Alex Salmond, was given considerable freedom to choose a referendum date. However, this time around negotiations will not be so simple. There will be further deliberations on the question(s), the franchise (will 16-17 year olds be allowed to vote as was the case in 2014?), and the timing. It may well be that Theresa May’s agreement to another referendum will hinge on the last issue, given under condition that that it is not held until Brexit negotiations are over. The issue now is not whether there will be another referendum, but when.

Calling the referendum is, as I have argued previously, potentially the most important decision of Nicola Sturgeon’s premiership. She made it clear this morning that calling for a referendum is a result of the British government’s refusal to move ‘even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement’. With speculation that Article 50 will be triggered in the coming days, the Scottish First Minister’s pre-emptive strike may make the British Government think again on some of its negotiating positions. I find it unlikely, however, that Scotland will be given a special deal in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May has hitherto avoided saying whether she will grant or block the Scottish government’s request. It is a given that she will campaign for a ‘No’ to independence vote. Nevertheless, Brexit indisputably has introduced a new and challenging dynamic to the independence debate that both sides will need to contend with in a future referendum campaign. For the unionists, Sturgeon’s bold move today will be seen as reckless and opportunist, an attempt to further complicate the Brexit negotiations and strengthen the case for independence. This is exemplified by Theresa May’s official spokesperson noting that ‘another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time’. For pro-independence supporters, however, independence is painted as an alternative to the potential economic uncertainty of Brexit. The Scottish voters, they argue, must have a choice: Hard Brexit Britain or an Independent Scotland.

It seems the future of Scotland is destined to be outside one (if not both) of the unions of which it is currently a member. Support for independence has not dramatically risen since either the 2014 independence referendum or the 2016 Brexit referendum and while it is currently around the 50%, it has yet to remain steady above this threshold. It remains to be seen how the impending Brexit negotiations will influence the independence issue, but a hard Brexit or indeed the prospect of no deal at the end of the negotiations have merely fuelled and emboldened SNP demands for another referendum. It is a bold move for Sturgeon. She will either go down in history as the first minister who presided over the independence of Scotland, or the leader who got it spectacularly wrong.

Let the games begin!

Paul Anderson is a PhD researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University. His main research focuses on territorial autonomy and secessionist movements in western plurinational democracies.

An extended version of this blog post appeared on the LSE EUROPP Blog on 14 March 2017.

The 2016 Scottish Elections: A Nationalist Victory, A Tory Triumph and A Labour Drubbing

 

By Paul Anderson, PhD Candidate in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University

 

On Thursday, 5 May 2016, the Scottish electorate went to the polls to elect the fifth Scottish government since the inception of devolution in 1999. The result – the third consecutive victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP), albeit as a minority government – is testament to the transformation of Scottish politics which has taken place in recent years. The SNP has, once again, replaced Scottish Labour as the party of Scotland, with the party’s raison d’être – independence for Scotland – remaining at the forefront of the political agenda.

Nicola

Source: BBC

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