Commentary / World

British pragmatism now on trial

The U.K. faces daunting political and social challenges

British politics are in a mess. Prime Minister Theresa May’s election gamble failed. The Tories (Conservatives) won the most seats, but are dependent on support from the 11 elected representatives of the Ulster Unionist party, who had to be bribed by promises of additional funding for Northern Ireland.

May no longer commands the respect of her Cabinet, whose members allow their supporters to brief against their colleagues. There are rumors of plots and counterplots designed to secure the succession. No one has the temerity to light the fuse as the Tory members of parliament fear that a leadership battle at this stage could lead to splits in the party that would open the way to another general election and a win by the opposition Labour Party under its avowedly leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn,

During the summer parliamentary recess the power struggle is likely to remain half-hidden, but unity over the autumn party conferences cannot be assured. No one believes that May will be allowed by the party to lead it in another election. The question is not if but when she will go.

All the plots and counterplots could be dismissed as political skylarking of no great import for the country if Britain did not face serious challenges.

The most immediate is to make progress in the Brexit negotiations, which have begun in a hardly congenial atmosphere in Brussels. In contrast to the EU the British side has seemed underprepared because the British do not appear to have positions agreed at Cabinet level on many of the points at issue.

The three main issues at this stage are the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the parallel rights of British citizens in EU countries after Brexit, Britain’s financial obligations to the EU on leaving, and how after Brexit to deal with the border between Northern Ireland — which remains part of the United Kingdom — and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

On citizens’ rights, there is agreement in principle that these should be upheld, but disagreement on many details. The underlying problem lies in the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, any role for which May adamantly rejects. It won’t be easy to find a compromise on what is a fundamental principle for Brexiters as well as for the EU.

On finance, the British have been reluctant to reveal their hand in the probably vain belief that they can thereby gain an advantage in what some seem to see as a kind of poker game.

The Irish border issue involves tackling aspects of both the EU single market and the customs union. No one wants to see border controls reestablished in Ireland, not least as this might jeopardize the hard-won agreement to ending the violence of the “troubles” that caused so much grief in the final years of the 20th century. But how can this be achieved if the U.K. as whole is no longer in the single market or the customs union?

Business and the trade unions backed by Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer, want a so-called soft Brexit that will ensure smooth future trading relations with the EU and preserve British jobs. But there is no clarity about the form this might take. Nor is it certain that the EU can or will agree to an arrangement of this kind.

The ideologues in the Tory party tend to dismiss the fears of business as exaggerated, but in any case regard a “clean break” as necessary and inevitable. Most of ideologues lack practical experience of business as well as economic competence. Experts are dismissed as prejudiced and statistics as misleading.

The British referendum last year in which a small majority (52 percent to 48 percent) voted to leave the EU were not asked to vote on the terms of leaving. Nor give their reasons. The referendum was explicitly advisory.

The Brexiters have, however, interpreted the results as meaning that the British people gave priority to stopping free movement of people and taking back “control” although questions about these points were not on the ballot paper. Anyone who disputes this interpretation of the result of the referendum is accused of being disloyal and unpatriotic. The Tory party, which David Cameron had hoped to unify through the referendum, is more split that ever on Europe.

The Labour opposition officially accepts that the referendum results cannot be reversed and favors a soft Brexit, but its attitude toward the EU is ambivalent and its leader, Corbyn, was at best lukewarm to Britain remaining in the EU.

Brexit is not the only cause of political friction. Britain also faces serious social challenges. Inequalities in wealth and earnings have become more apparent. Budget austerity has led to pressures on public services including health, social care, education, and law and order. Crime rates have been rising while the terrorist threat has continued. The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington has highlighted housing shortages and inequities. There is increasing pressure to lift the 1 percent cap on raises for public employees, which has led to a decline in living standards.

The Labour Party capitalized on these discontents in the recent election and called for an end to austerity. It promised vastly increased expenditures, including abolition of university fees, matched to some extent by increased taxes on “the better off” and on companies. As a result it achieved a significant increase in its share of the vote, particularly among younger people.

The Tories argue that Labour policies are unrealistic and threaten the British economy, but recognize their electoral appeal. “One Nation” Tories, of whom May is probably a leading member, want to reach out to the underprivileged and adopt elements of the opposition’s policies. The more right-wing elements in the party want to stick to orthodox economic policies and do not appreciate how ill feeling is building up against the privileged elite.

There remains an inherent belief in Britain that somehow British pragmatism will prevail and that Britain will muddle through alright in the end, although people recognize that Britain faces a bumpy ride.

A career diplomat, Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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