British democracy may be the real loser in Westminster election
Values, interests and institutions have been subordinated to electoral calculation
Britain’s PM Boris Johnson in an electric taxi during his election campaign in Coventry on Wednesday. Worthwhile leadership cannot be directed solely towards winning elections, as if power were an end in itself. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images
Opinion polls, journalists and commentators are falling over each other to predict who is likely to win the British general election. But how do you define winning?
On the face of it, of course, the winner of the election will be the party that wins most votes or, more importantly, most seats. However, any judgment on who has truly won the election will necessarily be more complicated, for at least six reasons.
First, most obviously, if no party wins an overall majority of parliamentary seats, whoever can pull together sufficient parliamentary support from other parties to form a government will generally be deemed the victor.
Second, the primary interest of many will be to interpret the result in terms of its implications for the defining issue of Brexit which may require subtle judgment.
Third, any claim to victory should be understood in the context of the British electoral system. It would be possible, for example, for the Conservatives to win an overall majority of seats with less than 40 per cent of the votes. That may be illogical but it is not improper; the same electoral rules apply to everyone. However, an awareness of the non-proportional nature of the British electoral system should temper any appreciation of what winning means in that context. It is entirely conceivable for a party to win what the British media might describe as a landslide victory, but with more than six out of 10 British voters still strongly opposed to the outcome.
Fourth, from certain perspectives, what constitutes winning is not about the overall result. The victory sought by the Scottish National Party, for example, is to do well enough in Scotland to provide strong impetus for a second independence referendum. For the Liberal Democrats, a return to being a third serious political force in UK politics would represent significant success. Northern Ireland parties will judge their success by their overall percentage of votes and, perhaps even more, by who wins the small number of particularly contested seats.
The promise, from whatever party, to ‘make a success of Brexit’ is undeliverable
A fifth aspect which will add complexity to assessing who has won the election is that the outcome will not be frozen at a fixed point in time. Whatever government is formed will be facing into profound and unpredictable Brexit consequences. Far from “getting Brexit done”, as the Conservative mantra claims, the date of departure from the EU would only be the beginning of a long process. Negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU lies ahead, as does the profoundly damaging effect Brexit will have on British prosperity, influence and cohesion. Whoever forms the next British government will inherit a poisoned chalice which no amount of spin will be able to transform. A spoonful of political sugar will do little to help the Brexit medicine go down. In simple terms, the promise, from whatever party, to “make a success of Brexit” is undeliverable.
The keepers of the Brexit flame assert, tendentiously, that the British people, having spoken in the 2016 Brexit referendum, have delivered their definitive verdict on the EU. When the British people vote on December 12th, they will retain the democratic right to come back, with a vengeance if necessary, next time around. By then, the perception of what in December constitutes a win may have taken on a radically different complexion.
Finally, in any democracy, worthwhile leadership cannot be directed solely towards winning elections, as if power were an end in itself. The UK, faced with its greatest crisis of modern times, has a government for which electoral victory seems to have become the Unholy Grail. British democracy has been poorly served in recent times by the subordination of British values, interests, and sometimes the very institutions of its democracy, to electoral calculation. Any deal with the xenophobic Brexit Party, even a tacit one, will have further serious implications for British democracy.
Trump has blundered into the china shop to tell us what he thinks
Winning the general election is sometimes presented, convincingly enough, as the essential purpose of the Cummings strategy. Whenever I hear it suggested that, by winning a general election, Johnson could yet be deemed to have “won”, I am reminded of what the Duke of Wellington said as he surveyed the carnage on the battlefield on the day after Waterloo: the next worst thing to great defeat is a great victory.
Moreover, winning will be perceived differently from abroad. The EU hopes for the restoration of common sense and coherence in a neighbouring country which it hopes will be its closest partner. Trump has blundered into the china shop to tell us what he thinks. As in the Brexit referendum, Putin will be no doubt be feeding in his preferences with greater subtlety.
Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and the EU