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Betting On Democracy

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking with David Blevins from Sky TV.
Photo of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson courtesy the Northern Ireland Office

With the nation polarized, the legislature paralyzed and public debate practically poisonous, it is refreshing to see politicians turn to their electorate with a deferential request: Tell us what you want.

No, not here in the United States. It looks to be at least another month or two before the impeachment circus completes its parade across our screens and we get down to the business of choosing a president in the traditional way, at the ballot box.

I am talking about the United Kingdom. Today voters will choose a new Parliament in an effort to finally bring down the curtain on the Brexit soap opera and let their country begin to move on to other business.

If the pre-election polling proves correct – which has not always been the case in modern Britain – Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservatives (call them the Tories if you want people to think you speak truly fluent English) will emerge on top of the pack. Most likely they will win a solid governing majority committed to Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done.”

If so, it could mark Johnson as the most historically significant British premier since at least Margaret Thatcher, and arguably since Winston Churchill. It will also have redeemed a striking political gamble that Johnson took to break a years-long deadlock and force today’s election.

Johnson assumed leadership of the Tories from the hapless Theresa May. May bequeathed him a coalition government that relied on Unionists from Northern Ireland (that’s Ulster to the cool kids) for a razor-thin majority in the House of Commons. This was even less useful than it sounds, because the Tories included a faction that did not want to see Brexit happen at all – or, at most, wanted a severely watered-down version – despite the fact that Brexit is the course the country’s voters chose in a 2016 referendum.

The Ulster coalition partners had their own requirements. The main one was that no customs or other barriers emerge between their territory and the rest of Britain. Americans may not think this is much to ask. But while Northern Ireland will leave the European Union along with the rest of Britain, the Irish Republic will remain. This gave Britain’s jilted EU partners a club with which to batter it, in the form of a threat of a “hard” border on the island of Ireland. Such a barrier would make life extremely difficult in Ulster, in large part due to historic animosities between nationalist Catholics who favor Dublin and unionist Protestants who lean toward London.

Johnson’s strategy, which some thought crazy at the time, was to strengthen his hand by first greatly weakening it. He evicted 21 recalcitrant Conservatives from his party, a tactic known in Westminster as “removing the whip.” (Call it Westminster and you're practically a native; refer to “removing the whip” and you are getting into genuinely geeky territory. Remember, you’re a Yank. You aren’t supposed to know Westminster from the West End.)

In due course, and not without considerable drama leading up to a planned Oct. 31 Brexit that never happened due to Parliament’s rebellion, Johnson got what he wanted: today’s election.

Johnson now has a party that is uniformly pro-Brexit, so much so that the single-issue Brexit Party is barely competing. This avoids splitting the pro-Brexit vote (just call it “Leave”). Meanwhile, the anti-Brexit (“Remain”) vote is divided among the proto-socialist Labour opposition, the centrist Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the regionally strong Scottish National Party. If everything plays out the way that seems most likely, Johnson will emerge with a working majority that can let him get Brexit done early in 2020, even if the specifics are not strictly to the liking of his erstwhile allies from Northern Ireland.

Although sometimes overblown, certain parallels between Britain’s current political situation and our own are genuine. Most notably, Johnson’s majority – if he gets it – will come from declining industrial regions in the country’s North that have not voted Conservative in living memory (or, in some cases, any memory). This was once Labour country, just as our own Rust Belt was part of the Democrats’ “Blue Wall” until the presidential election of 2016 blew a hole in it. At the same time, affluent sections of London and other locales in southern England traditionally have been Conservative or swing districts, but the Tories are likely to do poorly there today. This area voted Remain in 2016 and believes it has the most to lose from a separation from Europe.

Johnson himself has a political persona reminiscent of our current president, minus the Twitter feed. At home, certainly among his opponents but maybe among his supporters as well, he is sometimes seen as Donald Trump’s mini-me. Many voters are appalled. But, there as here, a considerable number think his approach is just what their country needed.

Elections are a great way to try to resolve such severe differences. If we don’t like the result, we can wait a little while and then try to change things in the next election. It’s a feature of democracy, not a bug, and there is a lot to recommend it.

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