You can sometimes get what you want—but if you do, expect troubleby David Runciman / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
In 2014, when he was asked whether he still stood by Ukip’s notoriously daft 2010 general election manifesto—every bit as crude and cavalier as the Trump platform—Nigel Farage said he was prepared to ditch pretty much all of it. No more insisting on uniforms for taxi drivers; no more legislating to ban schools from showing Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (really!) The world waits to see which promises President-Elect Trump will dump, but insofar as his friend Farage was concerned there turned out to be only two red lines: quitting the EU and bringing back grammar schools.
Now here we are in 2016 and one of the two core Ukip policies is on the verge of becoming reality and the other is official government policy. Yet at the same time, Ukip is more of a laughing stock than ever. The party is on its hunt for its third leader in as many months, having got rid of one chief after 19 days, seen another candidate laid out on the floor of the European parliament before he defected to the Tories, and briefly flirting with a third who happily modelled himself on Trump, only without the charm or the political experience. It all illustrates that timeless political adage: be careful what you wish for.
Parties that become identified with the pursuit of a distant dream face all sorts of problems when that dream starts to come true. As their reason for being loses its grip, so does their discipline. Suddenly, the whole purpose of the party is up for grabs, which invites grandstanding and division. Ukip is not the only one who may discover this. The SNP is closer than it has ever been to fulfilling its overarching goal of Scottish independence. To this point, that prospect has been just far enough out of reach to keep the SNP functioning as a remarkably well-oiled machine. One step at a time is a great recipe for keeping the troops in line. But as the fateful final step approaches, it becomes harder to know what comes next.
The current face-off between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon over a second Scottish referendum has turned into a high-stakes game of bluff. The last thing May wants is the break-up of the UK, but she also knows that a referendum could also be the last thing Sturgeon wants as well. The SNP cannot afford not to win—since to lose one referendum can be counted as misfortune but to lose two always spells curtains. But Sturgeon may also be reluctant to win it, since this looks like a very unpropitious time, economically and politically, for Scotland to try to go it alone. Calling for the vote is Sturgeon’s most potent weapon, as it was Farage’s. Winning it could be her undoing.
The irony is that in the pursuit of their primary political goal both the SNP and Ukip have discovered other strings to their bow. The SNP has turned into a party of government, which gives it a purpose that goes well beyond the dream of independence. It’s just that it’s easier to govern when that’s not all you do; post-independence that will no longer be an excuse.
Before its current woes, Ukip had become more than just a pressure group for holding Tories’ feet to the fire over Europe. Farage used to suggest that if Britain left the EU he would no longer have any excuse not to rejoin the Conservative Party. The reason he doesn’t, and his party won’t, is that it morphed over the course of its long campaign into a serious threat to Labour as well. Had the EU referendum been narrowly lost, Ukip would now be eyeing up somewhere between 50 and 100 vulnerable Labour seats at the next general election, surfing a wave of Eurosceptical and anti-immigrant frustration. It’s that tantalising prospect that keeps it in being, though thankfully for Labour it no longer has the wherewithal to exploit it.
Yet these are not simply dilemmas for parties of opposition. Governments too have to grapple with the question of whether they want to achieve their ultimate goals, for fear of what that might let out of the bag. George Osborne knew that restoring Britain’s public finances was a dangerous game, in case it let the voters think that they could afford to take a chance on Labour. He was careful to make sure that the work of tackling the deficit was never done, and he’d made himself extremely secure by missing all the targets, before Brexit pulled the rug out from under him. Now the May government faces a parallel problem. The task of making a success of Brexit has become so central to May’s fortunes that were she to achieve it, both the voters and her own MPs might start to wonder what a May government was for. Luckily for her, the prospects of anyone drawing a line under Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU looks vanishingly remote. There will always be more work to be done.
Looming at the back of every British leader’s political mindset is a distant echo of what happened in 1945, when Winston Churchill went to the country having saved the world from fascism, and was rewarded with a thumping defeat by an electorate who decided it was time for something new. Clement Attlee’s government followed, and was strikingly successful at laying the foundation for a new political consensus. But its achievements during a single term of office—perhaps even its over-achievements, given the pace at which they were arrived at—left it exposed at the end to seeing its opponents reap the rewards. Ironically, it was Churchill and his successors who were able to win the electoral battles under the terms of the new politics that Attlee had created. Meanwhile, Labour unity disappeared as the party fought an internal battle over who had been responsible for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Politics is always a delicate balance between fighting the good fight, which helps hold things together, and winning it, which does the opposite.
The political opposition in Britain is currently divided between opposition parties—Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens—who stand for things that are uncomfortably close to being pipe dreams (radical social democracy, a second European referendum) and parties—Ukip, SNP—who stand for things that are uncomfortably close to being reality. Between them stands a government that is merely doing something very difficult. It’s a complicated and febrile environment in which to operate. But the advantages still lie with the government.
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