By Owen Worth, Department of Politics & Public Administration. This article was originally translated into French for Le Monde.
There is a common-phase in politics that has been attributed to Francois Guizot, John Adams and Winston Churchill which has a number of variations, but basically says the same thing. That is that if you do not vote left in your youth you have no heart and if you do not vote right by the time you are middle aged you have no head. The 2017 British General Election could certainly be an indication of this timeless quote. Yet, it goes much further than that. The deep generational divide that now exists in British politics has nothing to do with ‘heads’ or ‘hearts’ but more to do with opposing values that have emerged as tribes at war with one another.
In one corner, we have the generation known as the ‘baby-boomers’, due to their birth in the aftermath of the Second World War. For them the Labour Party has moved away from its traditional roots as the party of the ‘working man’ and has embraced a multiculturalism that it does not recognise. The ‘baby boomer’ generation overwhelming endorsed Brexit and are quick to stress to younger generations their ignorance of Cold War history, Communism and of the marvels of British democracy law prior to the development of the EU. In the other corner are the ‘Millennials’, who have been more financially disadvantaged than older generations having felt the brunt of student debt. They have also been effectively priced out of the housing market and are products of the knowledge economy and the flexible labour market. For them, Brexit served as another instance where the older generation has taken away rights and opportunities from them. They believe that Brexit was the latest in a long line of examples where an older generation, who were brought up with free education and training, got on the property ladder and had voted themselves to enter the Common Market in the first place were looking for nostalgia in their old age. What had also been a feature of the two groups is that the Millennials have been noticeable in their absence from the political process. Under 50% of the 18-25 age ranges voted in the preceding elections in the 21st Century. Not this time. Estimates claim that 72% of the said age group voted in the current election and overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn.
The two tribes are not just distinguished by age, but that appears to be their overwhelming determining factor. The older you are, the more likely you are to vote Conservative and against Corbyn. The change seems to appear somewhere between mid/late 40s and early 50s. Constituencies which were metropolitan, contained a high level of ethnic diversity and had a young population voted for Corbyn in their droves. Kensington, the very essence of London’s urban capitalism, voted for the socialist Corbyn and against May’s threat of a hard Brexit. Mansfield, a working class mining town that has been Labour since 1923 voted in a Conservative MP for the first time. It had overwhelmingly supported Brexit the year before, and despite being built on the foundations of the labour movement many moved their support from the United Kingdom Impendence Party (UKIP) to the Conservatives for the first time in order to get the Labour Party out. Whilst the Conservative Party did not make similar gains in Labour’s Brexit supporting industrial small town heartland, there were swings made towards them which bucked the national-wide trend of swings to Labour.
This election has more than ever demonstrated a transformation in British politics where two competing forces with very different visions of modern Britain appear at odds with each other. British politics has traditionally been understood by consensus. Whilst marked by a majoritarian first-past-the-post system, the main parties have historically looked to converge over a set of ideological principles that are prevalent at the time. Therefore the post-war era was defined by the mixed economy that saw the balance of public and private ownership and full employment, whilst from the late 80s/early 90s onwards a so-called ‘neoliberal’ consensus has existed based upon the market-led enterprise economy. The only time when there lacked such a consensus was in the 1980s, where Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party turned right, the Labour Party turned left, leaving some to form a new Social Democratic Liberal Alliance at the centre. Yet, here we have two distinctly different Parties offering different visions for Britain, with no party from the centre making any headway. It also has to contend with a Scottish question, which seems equally split over the question of independence and across the water, Ireland, which is trying to maintain the assurance of the Good Friday Agreement and its own historical common travel agreement with Britain.
As has been mentioned before, (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/10/forget-culture-wars-general-election-about-power-cash-opportunity) the main spark for these divisions have not been to do with a cultural divide as such but with the wider fall out that has come from the global financial crisis and the effects of decade long austerity measures. The various positions that have emerged can be seen as responses to this. Across the developed world we have seen reactions from the right and the left to the fall out of the economic crash and the subsequent actions taken by international institutions and respective governments (https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/resistance-in-the-age-of-austerity/) In France, as we have seen in both the recent Republic and the Parliamentary elections, responses to these times of instability have led to a rewriting of the entire political map. In Britain, two figures have emerged as folk heroes to represent these two distinct different responses: Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn. Each are perfect for the role. Farage was a former private school drop-out turned city trader that embodied the spirit of Thatcherism. Post-Maastrict he shared the Thatcherite disillusionment of creeping Brussels regulations alongside a growing fear of the post-enlargement freedom of movement within the EU. Adding to this he engaged in a form English nationalism that has included a longer nostalgia for the British Empire, a fear of all foreigners and a deep mistrusted of any implements of globalisation. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand is a veteran of civil rights campaigns, anti-war movements, a stalwart of the British left and an opponent of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ of the 1990s. As a prominent campaign on global issues, he is also highly regarded by the international left. Whilst this appears Corbyn’s moment, Farage, through his absence has also added to his reputation. Without him at the helm, the UKIP Party suffered a humiliating defeat at the election. He has already indicated that he will return to a Party which has for a long time now been largely associated with him and his antics (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nigel-farage-ukip-leader-return-considering-paul-nuttall-resignation-thinking-about-a7783951.html).
So where does this leave Britain’s current position? In a total mess is the short answer. Theresa May’s decision to call an election to shore up her majority for Brexit talks has backfired almost as much as David Cameron’s attempt to keep UKIP at arm’s length by offering an EU referendum in his manifesto at the 2015 general election. Despite the huge lead that she had in the polls going into the campaign, she spluttered her way through the campaign, with badly repeated messages that earnt her the nickname of the ‘Maybot’ (from robot). Meanwhile Corbyn was speaking at rallies to numbers not seen since the Second World War. As a result May has lost her majority and is now relying on a partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This has bemused many in Britain and perhaps stunned even more in Ireland. In terms of their politics, the DUP are not so much the dinosaur of Irish politics but the sabre-tooth tiger. Stemming from the free Presbyterian Church of Ulster the DUP emerged as a force that opposed the civil rights movements in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. As a religious-backed right-wing alternative to the official Ulster Unionists they managed to gain appeal in the Unionist community over their initial opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and quickly emerged as the leading Party in the North. Whilst they have moved on from the days in the 1970s where they campaigned against Common Market Entry in the first referendum in 1975 on the grounds that it was a vote for ‘Ecumenism, Rome, Dictatorship and the Antichrist’, they still maintains hard- line principles that are more suited to some of the more extreme areas of the American bible-belt than to anywhere in Europe. Enda Kenny, who is speaking down as the leader in the Republic used his last duty as Irish Taoiseach to warn May of the risks of relying on the DUP as a partner moving forward (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/dup-theresa-may-northern-ireland-gay-marriage-abortion-enda-kenny-theresa-may-a7784391.html). Yet, this the new reality of British politics. In the current atmosphere, it would be foolish to predict what might come next.