The Titanic, or the Eurostar?

30 May 2019

For anyone in the UK (even pro-Europeans), voting in the European elections on Thursday the 23rd felt a little surreal.  Depending on which side of the divide you stood, you might have felt that this was either a cruel, last whiff of cosmopolitanism designed to elicit maximum nostalgia, or an unwelcome reminder that your side—despite its bombast—had been treading (channel) water for three whole years. These were elections that were not supposed to happen.  Last Thursday felt like a political mirage.


The results on the other hand were all too real: a devastated Conservative party at a historic low of 9 percent, and a humiliated opposition Labour party at 14 percent—both shunned by exasperated voters.  An exasperation that stood as a testimony to the complexity of the British situation: Labour voters exasperated by the Labour leader’s ambivalence toward the EU and the Remain position voted Liberal Democrat or Green—whilst those Labour voters who support Brexit (a much smaller contingent) voted for Nigel Farage’s imaginatively named Brexit Party. In the Conservative trenches the cleavage was much the same, and voters (admittedly more strongly motivated by Brexit) drew much the same conclusions.  Hence the numbers for the Brexit Party at 31 percent (Nigel Farage has “won” his second European election), the Lazarus-like resuscitation of the Lib Dems who came in second on 20 percent of the vote, and a nice little boost for the Greens (12 percent).


Viewing this scene against the background of outgoing Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s multi-month ordeal of aborted legislation, catastrophic negotiation failures and resignation (only days before elections she had vowed the UK would not hold), it looks rather like the last hours of the Titanic: there is much running around and music playing.  But ultimately, neither a new leader nor an election can stand as a promise of renewal, or even survival.


But there is a different way of viewing these results, as a profoundly European set of developments: a “Eurostar election” that ties the UK firmly, perhaps for the first time, to its European peers.  The UK’s party system is more fragmented and diverse than it has ever been, and the great monopolies of the mainstream left and right over parliament have been broken—in today’s politics, what’s more European than that? Its populist party is a truly appalling mix of middle-class nostalgia for Empire, and the natural resentment of a working class whose aspirations have been left unfulfilled, and then unheard for decades—that too, it now shares with some of the continent’s great democracies whose Yellow Vests, Red Bonnets, and black arm-bands share with those who support Brexit much of the bitterness against elites. The fractious tone of politics, the complete crumbling of parliamentary decorum—as one taxi driver said to me with barely disguised excitement, “you’d think we were in Italy!”


On the positive side, the UK has also seen a re-awakening of liberal democratic forces (like those in Europe’s ALDE group), and Green shoots have begun to emerge—Green parties across Europe are also the winners of this election and may mark a turning point in European politics.


Perhaps this is the great irony: attempting to leave the EU has made the UK truly European. These elections prove it.


Photo Credit: David Dixon, Eurostar Terminal at St Pancras International, via Geography Britain and Ireland, CC BY SA 2.0.


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