There is a certain schadenfreude in watching the missteps of countries other than our own. This year in particular, I have been drawn to events outside the morass of American politics. But ours is not the only democracy that seems sometimes to be heading hellwards in a handbasket–not by a long shot.
In the UK, for example, it has been a very turbulent year. British politics reaches a frenzied partisanship that almost (but not quite) rivals our own. The issues are often different, but the rhetoric and the Left-Right divide are just the same. And now, in the wake of two terror attacks (in London and Manchester), the UK is stumbling towards an election on June 8 that will decide who leads the UK as they enter a momentous period of separation: “Brexit,” or the British exit from the European Union.
On June 23, 2016, surprising nearly everyone, the referendum to leave the European Union (promised by the Conservative party during the 2015 election), succeeded. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister–having fought hard for the UK to remain in the EU even as he ran for reelection promising the referendum–and was succeeded by Theresa May, the veteran Home Secretary, once described by a conservative grandee in a hot-mic moment as a “bloody difficult woman.”
The daughter of a Church of England vicar and scion of the quiet English town of Maidenhead, Theresa May has proved quick on her feet and surprisingly bold as Prime Minister, and her popularity has risen in the months in which she began to chart a course for a post-Brexit UK. This meant triggering Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (which governs EU membership) a few months ago. Article 50 starts a two-year timeframe for the UK to make trade and other deals with the European Union. If negotiations do not succeed, then UK-EU trade and movement of people standards will revert to international law and World Trade Organization rules. This would be a disaster for the British economy, which has long counted on the European Union as the largest single receiver of its goods and services.
After triggering Article 50, buoyed by high popularity, Theresa May called for a snap election. The idea, she said, was to secure a clear mandate for the kind of Brexit she and the Conservatives intend. It hasn’t exactly gone as planned. After a strong start, the Conservatives have faltered in the polls while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has gained ground. Although most Britons prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn as a leader, the UK has no “executive branch,” meaning that British voters don’t actually vote for a Prime Minister. Instead, they will vote for a candidate to represent them in Parliament, and if there are enough successful candidates from one party to reach a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons, the leader of that party will ask the Queen for permission to form a government and become Prime Minister. If no party reaches 50% of the seats in parliament, a circumstance called a “hung parliament” occurs, and who becomes prime minister is an open question.
Ironically, David Cameron’s efforts to gain an outright majority at the 2015 election by promising the popular EU referendum ended up scrapping his second term and leaving a power vacuum at the top of British politics. Theresa May has stepped in to fill it–but will she sway the British electorate?
So far, she hasn’t waged a winning campaign. She refused to participate in debates with the other party leaders, and the Conservative party manifesto met with a tepid response. One provision, a dangerously confusing bit about having to pay for your own dementia care, was excised from the party platform a week later (May steadfastly denied that this was what the press called a “U-Turn”). In fact, with less than two weeks before the election, the Conservatives are slipping in the polls while Labour is reaching levels not seen since before the last election. Even the Manchester attacks, the sort of thing that usually prompts a rightward shift in the among voters, haven’t helped the Conservatives’ numbers.
Labour’s uptick in the polls is all the more remarkable when you look at the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The white-haired, sour-faced, and largely ineffectual long-time MP is a staunch Leftist (think of a less cheerful Bernie Sanders, with a bleating voice). After the Brexit referendum, many commentators blamed Corbyn for not fighting harder for the Remain campaign: the thinking goes that a more effectual leader, more committed to the EU, could have prevented the result.
When Theresa May called for the snap election, it was widely regarded as a smart move. Corbyn and Labour, it was thought, were too far Left to win a national electoral victory. But the Labour manifesto, full of bluster about nationalizing the railways, etc, proved more popular than the Conservatives’ manifesto.
It would be a strange fate for Theresa May, to exhibit strong, daring, and capable leadership for less than a year only to be unseated in an election she herself called for. The election was a gamble, and right now, it looks like it could still pay off – a Conservative majority or Conservatives as a the largest party is still the most likely result.
Theresa May comes off as a little manufactured. She is deft at double-talk, while also clearly a woman of principle. She is like Hillary Clinton with morals, or Margaret Thatcher with more naked ambition. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, is all too authentic. Never one to put personal relationships over ideology, he divorced his second wife after she decided to put their children in a grammar school (a sort of publicly-funded but selective school) rather than the more proletarian (and notoriously bad) comprehensive schools.
Whoever wins the election on June 8 will face the unenviable task of heading up Brexit negotiations with the European Union. He or she will face an implacable bureaucracy in Brussels (with French and German power united behind it) that wants to make an example out of the UK by making Brexit as hard and damaging as possible, perhaps saddling the UK with an £84 billion “divorce bill,” to dissuade other restive EU members from leaving the fold.
My audience, as American Christians, is unlikely to be directly affected by the outcome of the British election. But still, there are consequences to discuss.
If Theresa May wins, it will be a victory for conservatism: not small-government conservatism (hardly a thing in the UK), but rights-of-nations conservatism. The UK is a sovereign nation and deserves to chart its own path. The European Union has evolved from a glorified trade partnership into a vast bureaucratic gorgon that demands fealty. That is wrong, not just practically, but biblically. It’s hard to unpack that here, but the sort of governments Christian societies have created are on the whole small and responsive to the needs of a people group, rather than a massive government spanning hundreds of cultural, linguistic, and economic groups. If the June 8 election can be seen as a sequel to the Brexit referendum last year, I think the British people should vote for the leader who has the most credible claim to making Brexit work in the UK. That will be a hard task, but Theresa May has proved herself worthy of it.