Commentary / World

Britain: One nation but many voices

by David Howell

So the United Kingdom now at last has a stable government, backed by a large majority in Parliament over all other parties combined: 79 to be precise. My apologies for predicting only 35 on this page — and even that was condemned as wildly optimistic.

The British media is full of stories about the renewed prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his mastery of the political scene, as well as stories about the collapse of the Labour Party and the need for it to make a fresh start as a social democratic opposition instead of an extreme left-wing cabal.

But have the experts got it quite right? It is certainly true that with a big majority in Parliament the law will now be passed to end U.K. membership of the European Union on Jan. 31. That was promised and that will done.

Moreover, it is highly likely that an arrangement of some kind between the U.K. and the rest of Europe will be settled well before the end of 2020, again as promised and now to be enshrined in legislation. So no more endless extensions of the transition period into never-never land.

The voices doubting this end of 2020 target are the same ones who were certain Johnson could never get another deal out of the EU leaders, were certain that no arrangement could be achieved over the Irish border between the north and south, were convinced an orderly exit by the U.K. was unattainable, and are now just as certain that a sensible EU trade agreement cannot be reached in 2020.

They were wrong each time and will be wrong again.

But all of this could be missing a much deeper point. The analysis and post-mortems (by the defeated) are being conducted entirely in terms of the two traditional main parties, Conservative and Labour. One party is at least 180 years old, the other almost 140.

But it seems to be overlooked that we are living in an age of total digital transformation, in which public opinion plays a more central and continuous part than ever before in history. This is the age of the smartphone and the iPad, the blog and the blockchain. Transparency is absolute, streams of data unending, and fragmentation and volatility guaranteed. Conventional analysis in terms of class, habit or “tribal” inclinations becomes less and less relevant.

In the latest British election it was not just a question of millions of voters changing sides. It is that people expressed their own free opinions as never before and rejected old party allegiances as never before. Instead they had the means, on a scale never before possible, through which to vent their views, seek new allies and challenge official views and plans. Or, as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once put it, most people now have their own echo chambers.

In short the public has arrived at the center of government. Their chosen new representatives have come to the Parliament at Westminster in no mood to obey party lines and party policies with weak and dutiful obedience. They will have their own agendas and their own means of promoting them. The party leaders on both sides who want to stay in command of this many-voiced cacophony are going to need far more agility and far more finger-tip sensitivity than ever to keep their troops in line. Simple appeals to simple ideologies, whether of left or right flavor, will not be enough.

Mastery is no longer the right leadership word or tone. And it would not work if it was. Instead the stance has to be one of service and advice. The only master now is the good servant. No wonder Johnson in his first speech to supporters made that very point and wisely so. The new prime minister appeals to his party to act as “one nation.” But in today’s nation there are many voices.

The assumption prevails in current comment that the ancient political party structures can somehow reform and accommodate these entirely new conditions. After all, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has survived for decades as a sort of political entity, while in the United States the Republican and Democrat parties hang together — just — despite containing members of diametrically opposed views.

But at the root of it all is a gigantic paradox. The communications revolution may have raised expectations, but it has also raised contradictions. People want, and want loudly, deeply conflicting things. They want less taxes but more spending on public services and infrastructure. They want less regulation but more laws. They want less central interference and bureaucracy, but more central control to ensure a fair society and an even spread of rewards.

Above all, they want more global connection, more browsing, instant information, more organizational convenience, more video-recording, more ticketing, cashing, calculating, more local solidarity and more opportunities to protest, complain and challenge.

Yet they hate and fear the consequent globalization through the vast high-tech systems and algorithms that their very own demands have created. That is why public views keep bouncing from one extreme to another, and why outrage and disappointment are so prominent as people discover they just cannot have it both ways. They cannot, in the English phrase, have their cake and eat it.

Keeping these armies of malcontents, with their disparate views, unified and under the required party discipline at Westminster is going to tax the leaders of traditional political parties to the limit. And wasn’t it the triumphant British prime minister himself who said just that about the cake and having things both ways?

So perhaps Johnson’s first new task is to explain to an expectant electorate that in the real, harsh world this is very unlikely to be the way things work out.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.

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