At long last, the logjam in Britain’s Parliament has been broken. Though many called it a risk, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recognized that a general election provided the only path forward for Brexit and for his leadership. Johnson, hindered and hampered by a clique of Tory Remainers, reliant upon the ten votes of the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland for his office, found actual governance impossible. The paralyzed House of Commons—in the aftermath of Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 snap election—appeared like something out of a Kafka novel. Progress might seem to occur, but it never really did, and it never really would.
To Johnson, calling an election may not have seemed a risk at all. Certainly he did not crave power so badly as to want to hold it in name only. In a sense, Johnson’s desire for an election harkened back to an earlier period of British politics, and politics generally, before careerist, “jobbing” officeholders took over who were more interested in staying in, and cashing in, than doing anything while in government. Johnson, on the other hand, offered a platform and a principle—“Get Brexit Done”—and, by placing both his policy and himself before the people’s judgment, also placed governance above the mere maintenance of office.
In the wake of the Tories’ landmark, crushing election victory, commentators are struggling to articulate why so many traditionally Labour, Northern, working-class seats swung Conservative. It is obvious that people who voted to leave the European Union, along with many who did not, wanted to see the democratic will of the Brexit referendum finally respected. The far-left Jeremy Corbyn, instead of honoring the result of the referendum, promised to sow yet more discord in the body politic. Had he become prime minister—most likely the head of a minority government, propped up by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and/or the Liberal Democrats—Corbyn would have ushered in not one but two new national referenda. Voters would have faced a new Brexit referendum asking them to choose between remaining in the E.U. or some yet-to-be-negotiated “soft Brexit” deal. And as the price for SNP support, a second Scottish independence vote would have been held, just a few years after the first.
The British electorate could not abide this outcome. At the same time—and despite the media, which enjoys bashing Johnson as dishonest or morally corrupt—voters also intuited that the prime minister, whatever his flaws, actually was placing the national interest above his own. When Theresa May called the election of 2017, she did so from a position of relative strength. She had a working majority. No Brexit deal had yet been brought before Parliament, much less rejected. To many, her gambit seemed overly opportunistic; the Conservatives went on to lose their majority government. Johnson, however, appeared honorable by placing the position he so coveted on the line so quickly after attaining it. His call for an election seemed like a breath of fresh air. It was an act that instilled trust between leader and people.
With a full, eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons, Johnson’s Conservatives now have the opportunity to change British politics for a generation or more. The realignment of political poles that began with Brexit has been confirmed and reinforced. Labour has left its industrial and union roots behind to satisfy the ideological indulgence of its new, metropolitan, elite base. The Conservatives have become the party of Brexit, the working class, and rural voters beyond the bounds of London. It is possible, as Johnson himself concedes, that many lifelong Labour supporters merely “lent” their votes to the Tories this time, as a one-off to keep out Corbyn. But it is also possible, if the Conservatives take the proper steps, that a new and transformative politics can be established. In the spirit of the Brexit election itself, this would be a politics that puts the national interest above narrow, special, and personal interests, placing action above the empty rhetoric of identity politics and politically-correct talking points.
The prime minister calls his party “the One Nation Conservative Party.” In the next few years, might he actually use his overwhelming majority to fulfill the promise of this slogan? He should, because the gauntlet has already been thrown. In Scotland, on the same night the Conservatives swept to power, the SNP strengthened its stranglehold. Its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, will not stop until she gets another independence referendum and—more to the point—until she gets the result she wants. One-nation Conservatism, if it is to have real meaning, and offer a real alternative to Sturgeon, must provide hope for the post-Brexit United Kingdom as a whole. Johnson, a student of Winston Churchill, is surely mindful of the concept of “Tory Democracy,” the creed claimed by Churchill’s father, and the guiding star of Churchill’s own politics. At its core, as Churchill defined it, Tory Democracy offered reconciliation, whereby “the old glories of Church and State, of King and Country, [would] be reconciled with modern democracy” and where “the masses of working people [would] become the chief defenders” of the great traditions of the British state. This concept, though vague in some ways, could offer a serious path forward. A new Tory Democracy could entail reconciliation between the people and their government, allowing forgotten voices to be heard again, or heard for the first time.
It has been argued, eloquently and in different quarters, that we are entering a new, postliberal age and that liberal democracy, as a form of government, has had its day. Phillip Blond called Brexit “a great postliberal political phenomenon.” But this might only be a matter of nomenclature. It could be the case that the project of liberalism has, for too long, been co-opted by an ideology, or set of ideologies, that are anything but truly liberal. (One need only look to the Liberal Democrat party of Britain, which wanted to revoke unilaterally the democratic will of the Brexit referendum, to see how far these labels can slide.) Perhaps Brexit, along with the Trump presidency, can provide a precondition not for the subversion or destruction of liberalism, but for its renewal—the creation of a politics wherein nations determine their own, sovereign destinies, and in which the voices and freedoms of the people are respected.
Augustus Howard is a research associate at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.
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