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Revolution of the young: The 2017 Election in the UK

It is clear that the majority in the House of Commons would no longer back the ?hard? Brexit that Theresa May had nurtured Photograph: (Others)

Leeds, United Kingdom Jun 12, 2017, 06.17 AM (IST) William Gould

On the Andrew Marr show on 11 June, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne described the Prime Minister, Theresa May as a ‘dead woman walking’. Osborne had his own reasons for glee at May’s terrible miscalculation in calling a snap election on 8 June, having been previously sacked from the Cabinet, as May cosied up to the party’s Eurosceptics for a ‘hard Brexit’. The latter would mean a departure from both the Single Market and the Customs Union – a move that, May sensed, required a greater parliamentary majority and legitimacy for herself and her party. It was the logical outcome of the Conservative Party’s shift to the right, the supposedly acceptable response to the resurgence of xenophobic populism in the UK.


But Osborne’s necrotic comments were not hyperbole. Predictions at the start of the election campaign were that May might increase her majority in Parliament from 17 to upwards of 100. On Friday 9 June morning, against all expectations and most pollsters, Jeremy Corbyn, the allegedly ‘unelectable’ leftist, had added 30 new seats for Labour. Better than any leader since Clement Atlee, he had increased the party’s share of the popular vote to over 40 per cent. The Conservatives lost a total of 13 seats, missing an overall majority in the House of Commons by 8 seats. Far from achieving a ‘strong and stable’ basis for Brexit, May had unwittingly set up one of the most spectacular and important electoral upsets in modern British history.


Theresa May’s robotic mantra of the need for ‘strong and stable’ government summarises, in almost comic fashion, the many ways in which this election turned the UK on its head. Because if there is one expression you could never use for a ‘hung parliament’ where no party holds a majority, it is ‘stability’. But there were other ironies which showed how the results had global implications. Throughout the election campaign which was accompanied by two serious terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, the parties of the right made a play of Corbyn’s historical conversations with members of the IRA. Yet two days after the election, May was building an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, whose 10 seats would allow her to govern. The DUP had strong links to Protestant paramilitary forces, principally the Ulster Volunteer Force, from the mid-1980s. And in forging a relationship with the DUP, May threatened to undo British government neutrality in Northern Ireland, which was key to peace via the Good Friday agreement. Overnight, Corbyn’s insistence that radical extremism needed to be tackled not with the suppression of rights, but by understanding its root international causes in UK colonial/postcolonial intervention, seemed to make perfect sense. And his logic was supported further by the publicised connections between MI6 and the Libyan bomber in Manchester, and by the UK’s continued arms deals with Saudi Arabia.


At least the DUP, reflecting Northern Ireland’s overwhelming support in the EU referendum for Remain, was likely to argue May should follow a softer Brexit line. In other ways then, and against all claims of ‘stability’, the government’s Brexit negotiations are thrown into disarray and further uncertainty. It is clear that the majority in the House of Commons would no longer back the ‘hard’ Brexit that May had nurtured on the back of post-imperial sentiments and a nod to popular xenophobia. The entire Brexit strategy has been premised so far on her penchant for being a ‘difficult woman’ in Brussels negotiations. But the only element of the election that allows May to hang on to power at all, are the newly won Conservative seats in Scotland. Furthermore, Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, is strongly in favour of a ‘soft’ Brexit, remaining if possible in the Single Market.


Negotiators on the EU side will now look at the UK with uncertainty. May seems illegitimate both in the UK, and in the context of changing international relations. There are suggestions that not only could the negotiations themselves be delayed, but that the 27 EU states might even entertain a total reconsideration of Brexit itself, should the UK government choose to revoke the signing of article 50 and stay in the Union. The 2016 referendum, after all, was legally only ‘advisory’. And there is no doubt that the surge of dissatisfaction with Theresa May’s Conservatives on 8 June was driven, in part, by the ‘48%’ – the relatively well educated, demographically younger, and more left-wing supporters of Remain.


The constituency that feels most cheated are the 18 to 25-years-olds – the population of the UK that is perhaps most clearly connected to promises of overseas work, whose horizons are increasingly global, being connected to the like-minded like never before via social media and travel. Although denigrated by the right-wing tabloids as a man who would take Britain ‘back to the 1970s’ via old-fashioned socialism, Jeremy Corbyn managed to harness this constituency in a way that made a remarkable difference to the outcome of the election. It has also had a knock-on effect elsewhere in the world. Donald Trump, whose diminutive hand held that of Theresa May's, has now postponed his planned visit to the UK for fear of protests led by the very same constituencies that came out to vote for Corbyn. The ‘special relationship’ too then, between the USA and UK, like Anglophone influence in the EU, has never seemed more uncertain.


Perhaps the 2017 General Election in the UK shows something broader. Political scientists and commentators have looked at the rise of authoritarian populism in the USA, UK, India, Russia and Turkey as part of a possible global shift towards anti-cosmopolitanism, in the face of global economic crisis. The UK election of June 2017, alongside the Presidential elections in France of this year, suggest that important parts of Europe, at least, are bucking this trend. Most importantly, they show that a younger generation of voters and leaders are emerging to contest this global shift to the right, and to lay the possible foundations for a new kind of politics.

William Gould

William Gould is Professor of Indian History at School of History,University of Leeds

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