The Choice Was Real


David Runciman in the LRB:

One of the better arguments for Britain’s leaving the EU was that it might reinvigorate and liberate national politics, stifled for too long by the absence of real choice at election time. The EU is a legalistic and treaty-based political institution designed to take some of the heat out of domestic politics. That left people complaining that the EU was generating all the heat. Brexit offered the prospect of a return to two-party politics across Britain, squeezing out the minor parties motivated by single-issue grievances. To a remarkable extent, this is what seems to have happened. The electoral map of Britain in 2017 looks very much as it did in 1970, before we joined the EEC. The two main parties now command well over 80 per cent of the popular vote between them, a figure not reached since the election of 1970. Scotland is no longer another country in electoral terms and both Labour and the Tories can claim to speak for all parts of the Union. This was achieved without either of the main parties cleaving to the centre. The choice on offer at this election was real and the voters embraced it.

It may be one of the better arguments, but that still doesn’t make it convincing. No election that results in the prospect of a minority government formed between the Tories and the DUP can be a great advertisement for two-party politics. There are many words that could be used to describe such an arrangement, but reinvigorated and liberated are not among them. British politics feels pinched and insecure after this vote. The prospect of real change hovers in the background but it is still hard to see how we get there from here. This is not 1970. The SNP retains a large bloc of support in Scotland that makes it much more difficult for either of the main parties to forge decisively ahead. Seventy seats in the new Parliament are held by MPs who are not Labour or Tory. In 1970 that figure was 12. Back then, Northern Irish electoral politics were still an extension of what happened on the mainland: the Ulster Unionists, effectively the Northern Irish branch of the Conservative Party, won eight of the 12 seats contested in the province. Now, Westminster politics looks more like an extension of what happens in Northern Ireland. If a return to the early 1970s means British politics being overshadowed by entrenched divisions in Northern Ireland, then here we go again. But that isn’t what Brexit was designed to achieve.

More here.