What political course corrections can teach us

All my adult life, I’ve been conscious of the often-repeated political axiom  about the UK electorate: the British people are allergic to political extremism.

At just about every general election I can recall, the voters have spurned any form of extremism – whether of the left or the right – and instead have gone for the middle ground, representing British moderation, common sense, and the voice of reason.

Even when times have been unpredictable and radical change was in the air – in the 1930s for example – extremists never gained much of a hold here. Mosely and his blackshirts never won a single election.

And, more recently, even when many British people were restless enough to back a radical new party like Ukip, they were still unwilling to return more than a single MP at the polls.

But there have been two occasions in my lifetime when the electorate behaved counter to this moderate stereotype and it’s useful to look at what was different about those occasions.

The first was in 1945, when the people turned out Winston Churchill who had led them through the perils of WWII and instead elected an untried Labour government with radical plans for nationalization. The second was in 2016, when a majority of people expressed their displeasure with the EU by voting to leave.

It seems to me that these exceptional occasions have something in common. In both cases, a majority of the electorate perceived that the political pendulum had been allowed to swing too far in one direction: their response was to apply a correction.

Britain in 1945 was just as moderate politically as it had been 10 or 20 years earlier. But decades of neglect by successive governments meant that life had become intolerable for an underclass of millions.

To give just one example: Britain’s principal source of energy, both for domestic and industrial purposes, was coal. One million men worked in the coal industry and 1,000 died each year of industrial disease and accidents. When men could work no longer then were sacked without compensation.

This kind of injustice was commonplace. So that when the electorate had an opportunity to express themselves, they voted for a government that promised greater equality and more humane treatment of workers.  It is unlikely that a majority of the electorate believed in socialist principals of public ownership of the means of production and distribution. But a majority certainly believed in the promise of less unfairness, less inequality and less inhumane treatment that Labour offered them.

In fact, almost all of Labour’s ideology and its flagship policy of public ownership were swept away within twenty or so years. What remained, though, were fairer employment policies, public welfare and health services, and better education for all regardless of social rank.  The course correction had worked, and the electorate was proved right in its perception.

I suspect that something very similar happened in 2016. No-one in Britain, not even the most rabid little-Englander, wants Britain’s trade revenue to fall. No-one wants travelling or working abroad to be more difficult than it is at present. No-one wants less cash to be spent on infrastructure, or science, or education, or health. And very few have any objection in principle to closer ties to our friends and neighbours in Europe.  After all, half a million British people died in WWII, to free them.

But, just as in 1945, a majority of British voters perceived that the pendulum had swung too far in one direction and they applied a course correction – not for ideological reasons, or out of fear or hatred, but with the aim of returning to a more centrist position.

Arguments will continue over what exactly it was that they perceived to be out of balance and that caused them to act. It is fashionable currently to blame fear and ignorance regarding immigrants, but I suspect it is something deeper and more visceral.

In January this year hundreds of people waited on stretchers in hospital corridors for more than 12 hours because of lack of hospital beds. In one hospital, two people died in corridors, one of them a woman who had been waiting 35 hours to be treated.

Everyone can see that health, housing, schools and roads are congested beyond capacity and little or nothing is being done, while Brussels spends billions on Federalist projects that nobody wants.

When given an opportunity to have their say, those who feel dispossessed voted to leave, not necessarily because they wish to separate from France or Germany or Spain, but because they want to separate from Brussels.

There is, I think, a great irony in this. The majority of the British electorate voted to restore moderate balance where they saw extremist Federalism becoming established, only to be accused of an extremist act themselves. Perhaps that is the fate of all revolutions – even quiet ones.

There is a further comparison to be made, for the election of Donald Trump as president can also be viewed in the same light – as a readjustment or course correction aimed at a smug governing liberal elite who have allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from the affairs of common people, and have applied a touch on the tiller.

In this respect, I think we must see the ideologically driven Labour government of 1945, the Brexit vote of 2016 and the elevation of Trump into power all as having been created as rebukes by a moderate electorate to the negligence of a smug governing class – in a word, as comeuppance.

 

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