An Easter thought: parliamentary democracy is quite good at renewal. As presidential and quasi-presidential systems, from Israel to France to the US, confront their demons, Westminster is quietly expelling its own. With the main parties all led by serious-minded and respectable people, the carnival of madness of recent times may be largely over.
The hard right is reassembling and will not go away because “populism” has become a synonym for anger in modern politics, and there is still plenty of anger about. But the parliamentary majorities are now in more stable, calmer hands. For the time being, as spring warms the bricks of the genteel 18th-century streets around Smith Square in Westminster, parliament no longer feels like a wholly owned subsidiary of US neoliberal ideology.
The House of Commons dramas that throbbed through 2022 were lurid and, for anyone with a shred of residual patriotism, often embarrassing; but all those resignations and plots wrenched politics into a better place. Parliamentarianism works. (If you think that statement must be the deranged outcome of chocolate-egg poisoning, gentle reader, read on.)
Far from Westminster, Scotland teaches another old truth: one-party states corrode themselves. It was hardly the SNP’s fault that it was dominant for so long in a voting system expressly designed to avoid that situation. As my colleague Chris Deerin has written, the incompetence hidden behind the party’s self-regarding smirk has now emerged into daylight and can never quite vanish again. Humza Yousaf seemed young, humble and nervous as he made his acceptance speech after his narrow victory over Kate Forbes. Well, there’s much to be humble about.
Yousaf, who is Scotland’s first Muslim leader, wants a broad-based citizens’ movement to drive independence. With the SNP falling in the polls, that seemed a tacit acknowledgement that nothing is going to happen quickly on Scottish independence: almost by definition, it would be a medium- to long-term project. But it’s not a silly idea. Alex Salmond, the former first minister and now Alba Party leader, made it clear to me that, with Sturgeon gone, there was a good chance of a broader pro-independence alliance again. Scottish unionists shouldn’t be breaking out the fizzy whisky yet.
The “Yes” momentum has stalled, the divisions and failures in the SNP’s governance of Scotland have been brutally exposed, and Labour, in particular, now has a chance of gaining anywhere between six and 20 extra seats in Scotland at the next general election. A number that the party could not have reasonably expected to win a year ago.
The consequence is that Labour’s chance of forming the next national government has risen dramatically; and there’s nothing Rishi Sunak can do about that. The influence of Scottish politics on British politics feels higher now than when Labour was led by John Smith. (Yousaf chose to reference Smith in his acceptance speech when he quoted the late Labour leader: “The opportunity to serve our country is all we ask.”) These remain times for cautious confidence on the centre left.
Only cautious, however, because a possible Scottish bonanza won’t make Labour’s choices between now and, say, October 2024, any easier. As predicted here, the government’s anti-migrant legislation is coming apart. (We should stop calling it “anti-boats” legislation: it’s about people, not rubber dinghies.)
The Illegal Migration Bill was attacked by a Labour-Tory moderate group who sought to exempt child migrants and open more “safe and legal” migration routes. The bill also encountered an assault from a number of Tory right-wing MPs who wanted the government to go further and take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sunak chose to avoid Britain becoming an international pariah by giving the Tory right-wing rebels coded promises for the future. We don’t know what they were, or when they will be triggered, but there’s trouble ahead.
It looks as if Sunak will not get the clear divide that he hopes for between pro-immigration Labour voters and anti-immigration Tory ones. The bigger problem with the plan is that, even with Rwanda doing its best to help, Suella Braverman has no practical answer to what to do with thousands of migrants once they reach Britain. She can’t send them back to war zones. She can’t imprison them indefinitely. She hasn’t had a particularly welcoming response from the French. Labour has no answer either, but Keir Starmer isn’t (yet) in power.
What Labour can’t avoid is the more fundamental pressure on radical politics, which has been caused by 13 years of Conservative economic failure. Both of the bigger parties are being squeezed by outside forces into a relatively limited set of politically possible outcomes. With taxation already high and with growth low, it’s hard to see where Starmer’s team will find the investment that public services in Britain urgently need.
One of the great illusions that has bedevilled British politics for more than half a century is that our great and ancient parliament has “sovereignty”, or ultimate self-governing authority. That was what powered Brexit emotion. But if you take sovereignty by the hand and lead it gently out of constitutional textbooks into the real world, it is always a compromised term. Any legislature’s power, and hence its authority, is directly connected to the potency of its territory. A country whose terms of trade are dictated by others, whose ability to defend itself is limited, and which cannot feed itself or manufacture the technologies on which its people’s future depends cannot by definition be the possessor of a powerful parliament. And that is broadly the UK’s condition.
The future of the world economy, including the price and availability of the green technology we need, and the impact of artificial intelligence on our working lives, will be determined by the Chinese and US economies. The fragility of our food and energy supplies was obvious before Brexit, and before the Ukraine war.
As the government plots our Brexit course, regulatory standards are still not really set in London. Put this all together and it becomes obvious that the condition of being a crouched, hemmed-in nation will dominate British politics for the rest of my lifetime. To put it simply, the UK doesn’t have the economic strength to give us the services and living standards we think we deserve.
Political choices are forced into a narrow band and there will be no real political heroes. Dramatic tax cuts or rises are out. Radical economic policies are out. Dramatic new alliances are unthinkable.
None of this is startlingly new. Dreams of radical autonomy, from Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy in the 1970s to Brexit radicalism, pop up periodically in Westminster when politicians confront the truth of how constrained modern Britain is – which leads them to fantasise or panic.
But ours need not be an utterly depressing fate. If we shed the grand delusions of being a world power, then this could leave us a more contented, reconciled people. After the loss of post-imperial illusions, as traumatic for older generations as losing a war, becoming normal need not be awful. Do we look at the Irish, the Danes or the Dutch and pity them?
Far from it. No, Westminster is healing itself. Let it address domestic issues: dirty and dangerous streets, filthy rivers and poor housing stock. In a spirit of spring optimism, before long I believe parliamentary politics will no longer be seen as a danger zone of corruption, nor the focus of national contempt.
As a nation, we are still in recuperation. Bruised, weak, a little confused, Britain is enjoying the first watery sunlight of relatively normal politics. But the road to robust health, to national revival, will be difficult to navigate. Spoiler alert for the coming weeks: it doesn’t lead through Westminster at all.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special