12th December sparked a historic realignment in the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson won a ‘stonking majority’ of 80 seats, the largest Conservative Majority since the 1980s. The earthquake started just before midnight with the parliamentary constituency of Blyth Valley turning blue for the first time since its inception in 1950. This was not the first major swing towards the Conservatives on that fateful night, swathes of the North and the Midlands broke rank with their traditional ‘class alignments’ to stick up two fingers to the Labour Party which they viewed held them in contempt. Stoke on Trent, an industrial city, with the largest leave vote of any single conurbation, traditionally had always returned 3 labour MPs at each election, until 2017. 2019 saw the Potteries return 3 Conservative MPs. Rother Valley voted Conservative for the first time in its 101 year history - a former mining area, traditionally hostile to the ‘evil Tories’.
The Labour party were seen by the provincial towns as the London elite, living in their own bubble. This was compounded by the deep distrust and disdain for the Marxist, conspirator Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist policies, which are a complete anathema to the working man. This led to the crumbling of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ and their continued collapse in support across Scotland, on which they traditionally relied to be able to form any majority government.
Source: BBC News -- Above, Election results 2017; Below, Election results 2019.
We now know these statistics and the narrative behind them, but turnin
g this into another article focused on this very well trodden journalistic path is just a bit dull. So instead I want to make this article into a speculative gamble. What does the earthquake election of 2019 now mean for the Constitutional future of the United Kingdom? What does it mean for Brexit, and the Union?
The Conservatives’ election slogan was “Get Brexit done. Unleash Britain’s potential.” This was one of the better electoral slogans of modern times, and had a clear cut through with the electorate. It does not leave you in any doubt about what the aim of the newly elected government’s priorities are. So we know that the Withdrawal Agreement will now be put before the UK parliament this week, and will pass. The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union, as a fully committed member on January 31st, and the UK will enter into the ‘Transition Period’. During which the UK can begin to negotiate its future relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.
Negotiations with the EU are likely to be ill tempered. I am not going to pass aspersions on how the EU will conduct their negotiations. Although I am minded to believe that a more divided approach should be expected from the EU, than during the withdrawal negotiations. The UK is likely to negotiate some level of maneuverability for divergence from the current EU regulatory regime, but aim for a zero tariff relationship. Let it be in no doubt that the negotiating position of the UK has been strengthened by Boris’ majority, and improved mandate. Combined with the heavy interdependence of the UK and the EU in so many aspects will make a positive outcome from the trade discussions achievable by the end of 2020. Not to mention the new hard deadline which is to be legislated into UK law, by Boris Johnson, to sharpen the minds of the negotiators. So the election, from the UK’s stance has been positive for moving Brexit forward.
But what of the union? Some commentators are claiming that the union has been irreversibly damaged by the election results. Scotland, as in 2015, heavily voted for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), whom’s raison d’etre is to achieve an independent Scotland, from the rest of the UK. The electoral map has now been likened to Mr Burns, of The Simpsons’ fame. Boris Johnson will block any legal independence vote in the coming years, and in this, Boris has the support of the Scottish people. The majority of Scots do not want to see another independence referendum, and if one was held, the No, anti-independence side, will once again win. Reflecting what was called a ‘once in a generation; vote; that happened just over 5 years ago. In fact what is the greatest threat to the union between Scotland and the rest of the UK is the resentment that is held by those in England’s provincial, northern regions who believe that they are being short changed by the union. With Scotland running a deficit of around 8% of GDP, compared to the UK as a whole which was running around 2% of GDP - with much of the recent deficit reduction being placed squarely on the shoulders of the English. This paired with the disparity in government spending between the English regions and London, stores up a disdain, by some, for those north of the border. The only way the SNP would get the backing for a second referendum, would therefore be as a result of the Conservative’s new northern supporters being somewhat nonchalant and even glad to see the back of the ‘unfair union’. So, the obvious solution here, is with greater spending in the English regions being delivered by the Conservative and Unionist government, we are unlikely to see the government give any ground to the SNP.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the union, which is not given anywhere near as much coverage by the media, is the situation in Northern Ireland (NI). For the first time in its history, NI returned more nationalist MPs to Westminster, than unionist ones. This is again believed to be driven by the difficulties that have been caused by Brexit, and the uniqueness of NI having the only land border with another EU nation. The history of NI, and the Troubles, weigh deeply. Concerns that the new Brexit deal, reached by Boris Johnson, may lead to a different treatment of NI to the rest of the UK seems to some to be separating the union. Despite the assurances from the Johnsonian government that the UK will be leaving the EU, as a single, sovereign customs territory.
The importance of the NI issue seems to have now been reduced in prominence, since the Conservatives now hold their own majority, and no longer need to rely upon the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up the government. Many fear that this means that NI will be treated separately to the UK, without too much worry. And may sleep walk towards a united Ireland. But I do not see BoJo letting this happen. He has foist upon himself the role of ‘Minister of the Union’, and will do everything he can to ensure that the UK is held together. Even if this means building a suspension bridge to link Scotland and NI together (this is a serious proposal, not one I have picked from thin air). But, more crucially it is the potential for the hybrid customs regime within NI, caught between the EU and the UK will be the biggest attraction for NI remaining in the UK. Under the withdrawal agreement, NI will be able to benefit from the current EU trade framework, and the new UK trade deals that are soon to emerge, with NI taking whichever is better of the two. This unique position between the EU Customs Union and Global Britain will bolster NI’s place in the union through this amazing opportunity, more than Prince Charles smiling and handing out cupcakes to local school children ever could.
So, no matter how much journalists carp on about the existential crisis of the UK and its place in the world, I simply guffaw and reply with the national anthem, and a picture of Her Majesty. The UK has great opportunities ahead. Yes there will be challenges in the next 5 years, but if the optimism that Boris Johnson has can be reflected in the rest of the country via his ‘stonking majority’ the UK has little to fear for its future.