British voters want things to change, but largely stay the same

UK Politics: The mood of the electorate amounts to a kind of constructive indecision

British prime minister Theresa May speaks to party supporters at Sedgley Conservative Club in Dudley last week ahead of local elections. Photograph: Anthony Devlin via Reuters

British prime minister Theresa May speaks to party supporters at Sedgley Conservative Club in Dudley last week ahead of local elections. Photograph: Anthony Devlin via Reuters

 

For anyone who grew up in the Age of Landslides that was fin de millénaire Britain, the spectacle of a close election has a freakish novelty. Yet this is the way of things now.

Thirteen years, three general elections and a financial crash have passed since the public gave a prime minister a handsome majority in the House of Commons. Two of those elections returned no majority at all. To judge by last week’s votes in English local authorities, neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party can count on forming a powerful government in the near future.

While “ stalemate “ has emerged as the journalistic shorthand for this new dispensation, it is not quite right. Someone has to govern, and the Tories tend to scrape enough votes to do it. Stalemate also implies something of a passive electorate: two parties locked in mutual nullification like chess grandmasters while voters ooh and aah from the auditorium.

More likely, what we are living through is not stalemate but weak government by popular design. The British public has improvised through its votes what the American founders hard-wired into their republic’s constitutional architecture: the extreme difficulty of doing all that much in office. One election result could be an accident. It is the consistency of the pattern over the past decade that is so telling. The mood of voters amounts to a kind of constructive indecision. The mystery is what to read into it.

Over recent years the idea that Britain wants dramatic change – of a populist, eat-the-rich flavour – has hardened from a plausible theory into a given. As a result, it increasingly goes unscrutinised. If the vote for Brexit proved a wider national readiness for change, you would expect it to tally with electoral results before and since. To an extent that cannot be down to random error, it does not.

For a country that demands rupture with a “failed” liberalism, Britain keeps returning parliaments that guarantee – at most – cautious, tinkering amendments to the status quo. Even the referendum was followed, a year later, by a general election that has more or less nixed the hardest version of Brexit as a legislative goer.

The people’s will

As she tries to sell the idea of a “customs partnership” with the EU to more strident ministers, Theresa May’s most persuasive argument has nothing to do with the internal merits of her plan. Instead, the prime minister points her colleagues to the arithmetical realities of parliament. If denied a compromise, it might vote for full customs union membership.

Excitable Leavers will have this down as sabotage of the people’s will. But the people had a wonderful chance to express themselves a year ago. They could have signed off on a Tory win that made a formality of hard exit. Instead, they returned MPs to take the edge off their own decision to Leave.

If they regard this as betrayal, they show no signs of correcting it with a big majority for the Tories (or anyone else) any time soon. Their voting behaviour exposes a tentativeness about change that showed up as long ago as the 2010 general election, when the Tories’ tough fiscal plan spooked a nation that had seemed theirs for the taking.

In short, the post-crash British are indeed ravenous for change – until they are forced to define it. As much as they want “something different”, they are not sold on any one version of it. The question is whether distaste for the options on offer eventually becomes grudging forbearance of the status quo.

If weak government is the new default, it will not just moderate the terms of EU exit, but public policy beyond. On present form, no government will have the electoral numbers for either laissez-faire or a reassertion of the state in the private economy. Britain will have regained a substantial amount of sovereignty and chosen to do precious little with it.

If so, the referendum may come to look less like proof of a coherent national revolt than an uncharacteristic gamble that voters almost immediately hedged against with their electoral choices.

The elite’s failure to see Brexit coming has led to an over-correction. A view of the public has set in as nihilists bent on throwing the accumulated wisdoms of the past few decades up in the air and seeing where they land. But people, swing voters especially, still have jobs, mortgages and other tangibles to weigh against the abstract promise of change.

Human risk-aversion was not enough to save Britain’s EU membership in 2016, but nor did it disappear. It is unclear what voters want these days, other than their rulers on the shortest of leashes. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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