Commentary / World

Dangerous deja vu all over

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

The sight of a Spitfire flanked by two Hurricane fighters flying low over London on May 9 undoubtedly stirred hearts and led to shedding of more than a few tears at the bittersweet memories of victory over the Nazi menace 70 years ago.

Winston Churchill promised the British people blood, sweat, toil and tears before victory was achieved, and he underestimated the terrible toll of war. Let us salute those who gave their lives and those who bravely survived. But rather than wallow or weep over a past we can’t alter, it would be better to learn the lessons and work to secure a better future. Looking at recent political and economic developments, it’s hard to be optimistic for the world.

Churchill also famously said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the rest, a view that was surely vindicated by the U.K. general election and some of the sad commentary on it.

Britain’s overwhelmingly Conservative press — in terms of newsprint sales 57.5 percent of British dailies supported the Conservatives and only 11.7 percent backed Labour — crowed that David Cameron had come home with a resounding victory over the opposition parties, pundits and pollsters alike.

Instead of a hung parliament, which the opinion polls had predicted even on election morning, the Conservatives captured 331 seats, a small overall majority in the 650-member body, allowing Prime Minister Cameron to govern without the help of his previous Liberal Democratic Party partners.

It was a remarkable night that exposed deep flaws in the British system. The Labour Party won 232 seats, 24 fewer than last time in 2010. The Liberal Democrats, part of Cameron’s coalition, were almost obliterated, losing all but eight of their 56 seats. The Scottish Nationalists leapt into third place taking almost a clean sweep of 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, up from six.

The winning Conservatives gained the votes of just 36.9 percent of the 66.1 percent of the eligible voters, or 11,334,520 votes in total. Labour trailed with 9,347,326 votes, or 30.4 percent. Winning the support of 24.3 percent of the 46.5 million registered voters is hardly a landslide of popular support for Cameron. In addition, more than 7 million eligible Britons were not registered to vote. Add them, and the Conservatives’ support was barely 20 percent.

The Scottish Nationalist landslide was achieved with only 4.7 percent of the U.K. popular vote. Even in Scotland, they won only 50 percent of the popular vote, such is the distortion of the British first-past-the-post system in a multiparty set-up. That is only 35.5 percent of Scots registered to vote.

Put another way, the UK Independence Party’s single seat took 3,881,129 votes (12.6 percent of the popular vote). By comparison, it took only 34,243 votes to elect each Conservative MP, 40,678 for each Labour member, only 25,972 votes for each Scottish Nationalist elected, but 301,986 for each Liberal Democrat.

Although Cameron’s victory was small overall, the Conservatives were elated and the English opposition devastated, with all three leaders resigning (though UKIP rejected Nigel Farage’s resignation).

Sniping started inside Labour from both the left, who accused the leadership of failing their traditional support for the underdog and for working people, and from followers of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who blamed Labor leader Ed Miliband for failing to understand that British elections could only be won from the center.

It’s not an easy call. In Scotland, the winning nationalists were way to the left of the other parties, calling for an end to austerity and cutbacks. In England, the Lib Dems were crushed for exerting a softening influence on Cameron’s policies. Critics cruelly remarked that Miliband was now free to resume playing Wallace in the “Wallace and Gromit” animated series. Labour will be in disarray at least until it can choose his successor.

Cameron immediately promised that he will govern as “a party of one nation.” But the cock-a-hoop Conservatives seem already to have forgotten this as they celebrate their “mandate” to pursue their pet policies, not least renegotiating the U.K.’s membership and obligations in the European Union. Cameron risks being driven by right-wing “Little England” members numbering 60 to 70 MPs, according to former Conservative minister Malcolm Rifkind.

The new government quickly displayed antipathy toward EU obligations, getting its revenge in first, so to speak. Theresa May, the home minister, ruled out Britain taking a quota of migrant refugees rescued from the Mediterranean, claiming that this would only encourage more to flee.

The new government has hinted that its in-or-out referendum on EU membership may be brought forward to next year.

Former Times’ journalist Michael Gove, who is minister of justice, is preparing legislation to repeal the Human Rights Act, which enshrines Britain’s acceptance of the European Convention of Human Rights, which itself reflects the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The European convention falls under the Council of Europe, a wider 47-nation body than the EU, and includes Russia.

Conservatives object to European Johnnies, and particularly Jeans, Johans and Juanitas, pushing Brits around and European judges telling them what they can and cannot do in their own country. Some Conservatives claim that the human rights act is a “villains’ charter” because it gives too many rights to criminals.

Not so fast: scrapping the Human Rights Act might be illegal and would be ineffective without pulling out of the European convention. The Scottish Nationalists would fight tooth and nail both for human rights and for remaining in the EU, so Cameron might have to choose between presiding over a united kingdom or being prime minister of little England.

The basic problem with this pell-mell Conservative agenda is that it assumes that the U.K. is united and alone in the world to do what it likes, a classic case of how to lose friends and alienate people. Important allies like Germany are resentful of British attitudes: They want the U.K. to stay in the EU, but not at any price.

Sensible Conservatives would seek alliances with other leaders suspicious of the march of Eurocracy and offer positive solutions that would enhance national dignity within a globalizing EU.

Britain, even the rump England, is not a small country like oil-rich Norway or Switzerland — and those countries maintain EU privileges by being nice to Brussels, not by constantly picking fights.

That is why the sight of the Spitfire flying low over London also brought tears to my eyes. Remember the myth of Britain’s “finest hour” confronting the Nazi menace, a myth because there were many others from India, Australia, the French Resistance, plus generous pricey help from the United States, who supported plucky Britain.

How did Britain become so lonely? By pursuing policies of disengagement with Europe in the 1930s, ignoring the Nazi threat, cutting defense spending, precisely the road map that Cameron’s Conservatives are starting to follow in a much more perilous world, a dangerous fantasy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood out against the trend of narrowing nationalism. Like other Western leaders, she shunned the parade of Russian military might to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of war (attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as heads of state from India, South Africa, Cuba and Zimbabwe).

But the next day she went to Moscow to join Russian President Vladimir Putin in laying wreaths at the tomb of the unknown soldier in tribute to the victims of Nazism. But she did not mince words in warning Putin of the dangers of Russian action in Ukraine. It was a lesson of wise engagement that might be profitably studied in the little insular countries of the U.K. and Japan.

Kevin Rafferty was managing editor of the World Bank in Washington from 1997 to 1999.