Post-Election: Where Next for a Divided, Diminished UK?

Kirsty Hughes | 17 December 2019

Elizabeth Tower, UK Parliament (Jessica Taylor), CC-BY-NC-2.0

The ramifications of the Conservatives’ decisive election win last week are still being unpicked. But the fact that Brexit will now happen is the biggest immediate fall-out – followed not far behind by the vital political question of whether and in what sense the UK still has or will recover a functioning opposition, and by the other big question of whether the UK union will survive the coming years and Brexit at all.

One thing is clear: the Tories’ election win does not suddenly mend the UK’s failing politics. And that failing politics, as much as the economic damage from Brexit and the UK’s sharp loss of influence in Europe and beyond, will continue to hover over our damaged democracy’s uncertain future.

Looking Back

There is much to reflect on, not least on how the Tories won such a large majority even though there was a small remain majority in the polls for the last two years – and a majority vote for remain/referendum parties across the UK (a majority in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, level-pegging in England). While Labour’s bitter internal fight over who is to blame and who is the next leader is already well under way, poring over the election results will only give a partial answer. The politics of the last three and a half years (and earlier) is where many of the issues and answers lie.

Labour provided an extraordinarily weak opposition to the Tories in those three and a half years after the leave vote in June 2016. Brexit bored Corbyn and that meant he repeatedly let May then Johnson off the hook on the hard Brexits they both adopted (harder certainly in Johnson’s case). And Labour’s shifting fudges over Brexit left Corbyn and others either unwilling or unable (or both) to really nail the damage the Tory Brexit deal(s) would do. Labour abdicated opposition, in many ways, on the most fundamental political issue the UK faced.

And so the remain half of the UK population was left without a political voice – let alone one that would make the arguments to think again on Brexit and so to increase that remain support, changing the political dynamics as support rose. The LibDems under Vince Cable were largely invisible – and while they supported another EU vote from early on, their emphasis on remain took a while to come to the fore in their own messaging. The SNP provided a remain voice for Scotland (albeit emphasising Brexit compromises a lot in the first two years after the vote) but could not speak for other parts of the UK.

For the UK as a whole, Labour left the remain half of the UK’s voters unrepresented. And while the people’s vote campaign brought big numbers out onto the streets, in focusing primarily, and tactically, on getting more MPs to back another vote, they stood back from being the civil society voice of remain that Labour too was refusing to be.

Labour kept insisting it wanted a Brexit that would be close to but not in the EU’s single market. It never set out what that looked like – and it was hard to identify where the substantial differences would have been to May’s semi-permanent customs union approach. And once Labour finally, belatedly – and reluctantly in Corbyn’s case – chose to back a second EU referendum with a remain option, it fudged this further by still not setting out its preferred type of deal while stating, quite extraordinarily, it couldn’t yet say if such a deal was preferable to remain or not.

Many are now blaming the LibDems, and to a lesser extent the SNP, for backing an election. But unless Labour was ready to demand another referendum on Johnson’s deal and to back remain, as he brought his withdrawal agreement bill to the Commons, then there was no other way ahead. Some supporters of another EU referendum argued there was just a few more votes to win in the Commons and it could happen. But that majority for a people’s vote remained elusive – the cross-party opposition knew what it was against but not what it was for. Certainly, it would have been good to test that once more in an amendment to Johnson’s bill but the numbers did not look to be there.

So after an austerity-driven decade of Tory rule, capped by three and a half years of additional self-inflicted economic and political damage from the chaotic uncertain Tory infighting over Brexit, a majority Tory government nonetheless won the election. Lies, distortions, biased media, disaffected, alienated and desperate voters and more are all part of this. But so are opposition failures.

Looking Forward

The UK will now leave the EU on 31st January, forty-seven years since it joined. One of the EU’s largest states will no longer be at the table or have a voice or vote when crucial debates and decisions take place. Whether it’s the EU’s climate change policies at a time of climate emergency, its new geo-industrial strategies, the EU’s global trade stance, its development policy, human rights or its relations with the US, China, India or nearer to home with Turkey, Russia, the western Balkans, the UK will have precious little influence.

And on top of this defensive, ideological ‘little England’ withdrawal, the UK will experience considerable and continuing economic damage from Brexit – to its trade, investment and growth. Global Britain this is not – and will not be. We have yet to see the full scale of Johnson’s likely attack on key areas of our democracy, from the courts, to the media, to the civil service, to redrawing constituency boundaries, to how future trade deals will impact on devolved powers. But it will not be pretty.

The UK government and civil service will be dealing with Brexit for years to come with knock-on effects to a range of many/most groups and organisations from business to unions, public services, civil society, NGOs and ordinary citizens. Johnson wants to put into law that the UK will come out of transition (i.e. no longer in the EU’s single market and customs union) by December 2020. But there is no short cut to sort out the huge amount of work needed not only to have a full new trade and security relationship with the EU but to establish new or amended UK laws, institutions, trade deals with other countries, common UK frameworks and more.

An EU-UK trade deal by December 2020 is only likely at all if it’s essentially on EU terms. And it will, at most, cover the basics – perhaps including mostly (but not fully) tariff and quota free trade (even Norway faces tariffs on agriculture and fisheries products). But the EU will demand some agreement both on key level-playing field provisions and on other neuralgic issues not least fishing waters access to even get this far.

Or, if this doesn’t happen, the UK will leave the EU on WTO terms (unless Johnson repeals his own law to extend the transition – but that should be done by next June). Many are calling this a new, no-deal cliff edge. Given there is an agreed withdrawal agreement covering the UK’s financial obligations, Northern Ireland and EU citizens’ rights, this is not as acute a cliff-edge in these ways as it might have been. But there would be a hard WTO border, and many other deals still needing to be agreed (as there would be with a basic free trade deal) – transport, migration/visas, and the whole services sector. Yet even with a deal there will be some customs and regulatory barriers at the border – a ‘Canada dry’ Brexit will mean friction at the UK-EU borders (and in the Irish Sea) and an end to just-in-time cross-border supply chains. Whatever the UK economy will look like under such a deal, it will not be an obvious magnet (rather the opposite) for foreign direct investment, or indeed for migration (sorely needed though EU and non-EU migration will remain).

And all that, without considering the service sector. Throughout the Brexit process, the 80% of the economy that is services has received remarkably little attention. But neither a basic trade deal nor a WTO outcome will help retain the access and competitiveness that the service sector has in the EU’s single market. The UK has little bargaining power vis-a-vis the EU over services at all and will have even less with Johnson’s decision to ensure a December 2020 exit from transition – the Tories’ addiction to self-harm, in this case tying one hand behind their back in negotiations, does not appear to be weakening.

Where Next for the Union?

Where the UK union will go as this damaging, divisive and chaotic process unfolds further is an open question. But Johnson’s choice to appease the Brexiters in the Tory party and beyond by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea is a major fragmentation of the union.

There will be no UK internal market: Northern Ireland will be effectively (in practice if not in theory) in the EU’s customs union and its single market for goods (though not for services). The economic and political impacts of that will play out in the coming year and beyond. Many doubt whether the new customs procedures set out in the northern Ireland protocol can even be implemented in just a year.

Scotland now faces an intensification of its independence debate and a growing constitutional and political stand-off between Edinburgh and London. Johnson is expected to keep saying no to another independence vote, but where the Scottish government takes this next and how opinion shifts will all be crucial. Almost 75% of voters supported remain or EU referendum parties in the election. And most polls suggest Brexit actually happening will result in a majority for independence (we will see if this transpires and to what extent in the next polls which will be keenly watched). Scotland’s separation from the rest of the UK is surely set to widen – it has a different politics and a different identity (not least, though not only, in wanting to remain in the EU).

Meanwhile, in England and Wales a range of divisions look set to deepen too. Labour had the highest share of the vote in Wales. And in England – the only one of the four constituent parts of the UK that gave the Tories a majority vote share – there are big disconnects, both between some of its big cities and the rest of the country and, crucially and damagingly, between young and old.

Many of those who voted against Brexit and against the Tories are now looking forward to how to rebuild a coherent opposition, not least in Labour, to have a chance of winning an election in five years’ time. But there is much to argue about and fight within the next five years – both within the UK as a whole, and in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Brexit will happen in just a few weeks and a deeply, quite likely badly, transformed UK (perhaps by then no longer united or a union) will emerge over the next few years. The UK has cut itself adrift off the edge of Europe. And it has only itself to blame.


Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.