As is the case in Britain, will the government have the grit to test its legitimacy by calling for urgent general elections?
This week is rich in events. Markets are having the jitters at the risk of an Armageddon in the Sea of Japan pursuant to the reckless sabre rattling between a truculent President Donald Trump bent on browbeating countries which test his patience with a (mother of all) show of force and a temperamental North Korean President Kim Jong-un, sitting trigger happy over a nuclear arsenal. On Tuesday, after less than a year in office, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the cabinet had agreed to hold snap general elections in the UK in less than two months, on 8 June 2017.
She explained that her political rivals were trying to derail Brexit. She added that instead of the present deep division in Westminster, the country needed unity, a strong government, certainty and stability to negotiate Brexit from a position of strength and make it a success.
The announcement of snap elections caused the pound sterling to rise to a six-month high level against the US $. In contrast the FTSE 100 fell by 2.5% which wiped about £45.7 billion off stock values. It should be recalled that the pound sterling had plummeted by some 10% to its lowest level against the US dollar since 1985 in the wake of the Brexit vote in June 2016.
On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of general elections by 522 votes with 13 MPs voting against. The UK has moved full steam into election mode.
On 29 March, Prime Minister Theresa May had triggered Article 50 and officially informed the European Union (EU) of the UK’s intention to leave. The notification started a two-year countdown to negotiate and agree the terms of Brexit.
Test of legitimacy
Theresa May’s call for a snap election is a calculated gamble. This gamble is based on the commanding 21 point lead three recent polls show that the Tory Party has over a weakened Labour Party. This is the Tory Party’s greatest lead when in power since 1983, just before Margaret Thatcher won a second term as Prime Minister at the polls. Theresa May’s objective is to win the 8 June general elections with a bigger majority in the House of Commons so as to have a stronger hand to negotiate the best possible terms of a UK exit from the European Union.
However, more importantly the general elections provide a welcome test of legitimacy in the eyes of the British people for the Theresa May government. It will be remembered that at the time of the Brexit vote in June 2016, a poll showed that a large majority of the 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) at the time were in favour of remaining in the EU. After David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister in the wake of his defeat in the referendum, he was replaced by Theresa May.
How could a government nominated under such circumstances be representative of the popular will on Brexit? What legitimacy has the Theresa May government to decide without the endorsement of the people, on the form Brexit should take, on the specific terms of a negotiating mandate for Brexit or the model of trading arrangements best suited for the UK with its world partners for the future or how to maintain the cohesion of the United Kingdom bearing in mind that Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain in the EU, etc.?
It should be recalled that the vote in favour of Brexit in June 2016 had left a deeply divided United Kingdom with 51.9% of the votes in favour of leaving the European Union whereas 48.1% of voters voted to remain in the EU. Within the United Kingdom, Scotland (with a majority of 62%) and Northern Ireland (55.8%) had voted to remain in the EU whereas England and Wales had voted to leave the EU. An analysis of the referendum results showed that England was also deeply divided by geographic region, class, age and education. Major cities such as London, Manchester or Leeds as well as a large majority of those aged 18-49 years old voted to remain in the EU whereas a majority of those aged above 50 voted for Brexit.
While the educated young voted for openness, tolerance, pluralism, expanded opportunities and rich cultural osmosis through diversity, the less educated 50 plus citizens trapped in their multiple hangovers voted to take control of UK’s borders, stay insular and shun the world. This ‘caricatural’ depiction is a vivid snapshot of the drivers and mixed bag of emotions and angst nurtured by politicians during the campaign which shaped the Brexit vote.
It was therefore not surprising that the Brexit vote led to widespread protests across the UK against Britain’s exit from the EU. Could the UK face a backlash on Brexit at the 8 June elections?
Hard or soft Brexit
The past year has basically exposed the inherent contradictions of an untenable situation. General elections will therefore help bring clarity to a confusing situation that has been allowed to endure for too long. It will also enable the people to take a call on the type of Brexit they want.
Britain is at a crossroads. The long overdue general elections will provide an opportunity for people to decide (on the basis of each political party’s proposed vision for Britain, electoral programmes and plans to translate Brexit into a viable option for the future) which party should be entrusted with the destiny of Britain at this critical juncture.
The general elections will therefore provide the people with the democratic choice to decide which direction the country is going to take. Giving the cue to their electoral campaign, the staunchly Europhile Liberal Democrats proclaimed to all and sundry: ‘If you want to keep Britain in the Single Market and want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance.’
There are a range of options on the format of post Brexit trading arrangements. These range from hard to soft Brexit options. The current divisions in Westminster stem from the fact that Theresa May has opted without a formal mandate from the people for a hard Brexit negotiating stance favoured by hardline Brexit supporters. This means that the UK would probably want to be a global trading nation, negotiating new trade deals with countries across the world and take control of its borders, custom duties and laws. The UK would thus give up full market access to the EU single market. It would in deference to calls for stricter controls on immigration tighten immigration laws.
The Brexit negotiations will hinge on the model of trading arrangements Britain will opt for. Positioning Britain as a global trading nation will add to export costs owing to customs clearances, tariffs and duties. Instead of free market access, trade with the EU will initially be governed by World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Vulnerable sectors would not be protected from cheap imports. This will adversely affect the economy and the pound over a certain period as Britain finds its feet. It will also have a negative impact on our trade with Britain. In contrast, a soft Brexit would include duty free access for British goods and services and firms to operate within the EU. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein which are not members of the EU have access to the EU customs Union by being part of the European Economic Area.
However these countries must make agreed contributions to the EU budget and accept the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people into their countries. The people in Britain therefore have to take a call on the above onerous conditionalities for free market access which also means continued free access for European nationals to work and settle in the UK. The latter remains a highly sensitive issue in the UK.
It is a catch 22 situation. The general elections will provide an opportunity for the different political parties to explain their vision of Britain and how they plan to conjure the Brexit dilemma to assure a sustainable and prosperous future for Britain. This process will assist the electorate to make an enlightened choice in respect of the party to endorse at the elections and also help define the preferred roadmap in respect of Brexit.
If a government cannot face general elections, it has no legitimacy to govern. The key proof of legitimacy of any government is to be democratically elected by the people at general elections. Without a formal endorsement by the people through general elections, no government or nominated Prime Minister has the mandate to govern the country. Without the legitimacy of a people’s mandate conferred solely through general elections, no self proclaimed government can have the support of the multitude.
No MP can be more important than the electorate. No party leader can be more important than the Party. No President can be more important than the Presidency. No government or Prime Minister can be more important than the people and the country.
There is a pervasive feeling of alienation towards the political class in the country, heightened by poor governance, the systematic uncovering of lavish largesse towards the coterie and blue-eyed advisors at the expense of the public Exchequer, poor judgment, frequent tinkering with public institutions, the absence of transparency, a clannish culture, an abject patronage of apparatchiks and the inept and tiresome daily propaganda blitzkrieg on national TV during prime time news.
This is all becoming more and more galling by the day. People are shunning TV news, swiftly moving into a switch off mode and biding their time. As is the case in Britain, will the government have the grit to test its legitimacy by calling for urgent general elections?