Beyond Brexit, reflections after the Tories’ elections triumph

The UK Conservative Party received a comfortable majority in Parliament to try to turn their political vision into reality. “Getting Brexit done” is but a small part of the monumental task before the undaunted Prime Minister Johnson.

Union Jack flags flutter in the breeze at a souvenir stall across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament in London, England, on January 7, 2020
The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union at 11 p.m., January 31, 2020, beginning a transition period running until the end of the year, in which time Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to completing a post-Brexit separation deal with Brussels. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The British people voted Conservatives to end government paralysis
  • Britain faces multiple social problems that urgently need addressing
  • Split from the EU may be curtain-raiser for ending another union: the UK itself

Christmas came early for Boris Johnson last year – as he was handed a gift-wrapped Parliamentary majority of almost 80. He may see this, in the words of the Christmas carol, as “tidings of comfort and joy” but would be foolish to underestimate the scale of the challenges which face him. The decisive redrawing of the electoral map was a reminder to the Twitter- and social media-obsessed that what G.K. Chesterton called “the secret people” are still able to have the last word: 

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,/ Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street./ … But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet. Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

The message

Those secret, quiet, often overlooked and forgotten people cast their votes as a demand that the political classes end the paralysis and get on with government. 

It was also a vote against the extreme positions of opposition parties – but not a vote against addressing challenges of inequality, broken infrastructure and broken institutions referred to by the opposition.

As well as “getting Brexit done,” the redrawn map sends this further message. Conservatives now represent some of the poorest parts of the UK and, if their new members of Parliament (MPs) are to serve more than one term, they will need to address these pressing issues of social inequality and injustice.

By way of example, Westminster’s new MPs were elected in a week when Shelter, a leading charity working with homeless people, revealed that child homelessness in the UK is at the highest rate since 2006. Their report, “Generation Homeless,” shows that a new child is made homeless in Britain every eight minutes. Yet measured by the gross domestic product, the United Kingdom is the sixth-largest national economy in the world (the ninth-largest by purchasing power parity). If Prime Minister Johnson’s claim to be a “one nation” Conservative is more than rhetoric, he must get to grips with the UK’s searing divisions.

Social inequality has received scant attention at Westminster during three years of endless Brexit. During the general election, it was used as a dog whistle and reduced to a call to class war – for state ownership, enlarged public borrowing and to justify an attack on wealthy people. 

Whatever Nicola Surgeon’s Scottish Nationalists may say, most people in the UK do not want more referenda.

Sitting as an Independent in the UK Parliament’s House of Lords disqualified this writer from having a vote in a general election. I do not get a vote because I have the privilege of being able to speak and vote on all legislation that comes before Parliament. But it doesn’t disqualify me from having a view about the kind of country we have become. Having previously contested seven parliamentary elections for the House of Commons, and represented some of Europe’s most deprived neighborhoods, I see elections as an opportunity to restore a sense of hope and renewal.

Chesterton’s secret people finally, get to have their say – and to demonstrate anew that representative government is a far better way of resolving complex and contested issues than plebiscitary democracy. 

Whatever Nicola Surgeon’s Scottish Nationalists may say, most people in the UK do not want more referenda. And, incidentally, most people in Scotland, in the general election, voted for parties opposed to independence, by the margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. British elections are the way to test ideas and to select people to serve you. 

Representative democracy is far from being a perfect system of government but, having traveled in countries like North Korea and the former Soviet Union, and Asian dictatorships and theocracies, I know that the alternatives are infinitely worse. Not enough of our citizens realize how lucky they are.

What election candidate hasn’t been wearied by the response of the voter who says “I don’t vote for any of you. I can’t be bothered.” Women like Emily Davison, a passionate Christian and campaigner for social justice and universal suffrage, would surely be turning in her grave on hearing such lazy indifference to using the right to vote. Davison was trampled to death in 1913 after walking onto the racecourse at Epsom as a protest in favor of women being given the vote. Fifty thousand people lined the streets of London to pay their respects as her coffin was taken to its burial place. 

‘Mind the gap’

Observing the 2019 general election from her celestial vantage point, I wonder what Emily Davison and those who mourned her would make of the country we have created and the challenges it now faces?

Consider at first the huge gaps in British society. 

The Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn may well have been loathed and feared by vast swathes of the electorate, but many were prepared to hold their noses and vote Labour believing that they would benefit from his proposals to renationalize British industries and from the investment of 400 billion pounds to address social deprivation and climate change. 

Public spending would have risen to 45.1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), funded by higher taxation, but glittering with promises of free and universal internet services and the transfer of shares into worker-ownership funds. These were Labour’s attempt to upturn the Thatcher years of free-market capitalism tempered by Blair’s social market interventions. Their manifesto reflected their neo-Marxist belief that the state is superior to the private sector. Beyond their core supporters, their solutions gained little traction, but the need to address these inequalities did hit home.

When he was mayor of London, Boris Johnson was in charge of the capital’s public transport. He will know that at many subway stations, a warning is endlessly repeated to travelers to “mind the gap” as they leave the carriage to step onto the platform. Because we fail to mind the gap, too many people live in substandard housing or blighted communities and have fallen through the gap. Children go to school hungry; 800,000 children have no contact with their fathers as we indifferently fail to strengthen families.


Facts & figures

A chart showing that, quantitatively, the problem of homelessness among children in the UK has gotten significantly worse in recent years
The chart above shows that in 2019, the current number of homeless children in the UK was at its highest level since 2006. © macpixxel for GIS

Children born into fractured families are less likely to attain qualifications, more likely to experience unemployment, more likely to have low incomes, more likely be on income support and more likely to experience homelessness. They are also more likely to be caught offending and go to jail, to suffer from long-term emotional and psychological problems, to develop health problems, to divorce or dissolve their cohabiting unions. They are more likely to have children outside marriage or any partnership. And politicians are telling us gender identity is a more pressing political priority than closing the gaps that these vulnerable children are falling through.

In addition to the phenomenal social consequences, according to the Marriage Foundation, 44 billion pounds is the cost to the public purse of family breakdown. The National Audit Office says that the cost of youth offending is over 11 billion pounds every year and that Britain has the highest rate of adolescent offending in Western Europe.

Britain has the highest level of self-harming among young people in Europe and every day, there are reports of good young people, many from poorer backgrounds, who have drifted into gangs and drug culture.

How will we break the cycles of poverty and dependency, which lead to more children being locked up in British jails than any other European county, without honestly addressing these fundamental questions?

The issue for Boris Johnson’s government is how to promote moral capitalism and to cultivate human values which promote social solidarity.

The experience of Britain for those who fall through the gaps is food banks, urban decay and poverty. People who have fallen through the gap live in sharp-elbowed Britain, Devil-take-the-hindmost Britain and rip-off Britain. 

There are many other long-term challenges too. An aging population (65- to 84-year-olds are due to grow by 39 percent compared with a growth in the working population of 7 percent over the next 20 years), the attendant growth in social care, an overextended, insufficiently funded National Health Service, dilapidated school buildings, the challenge of artificial intelligence and robotics, the unbridled power and influence of social media, and many other questions will all have to be faced as well.

What society?

A picture of makeshift bedding of a homeless person at a London subway station
London, Jan.7, 2020: People walk past the bedding and belongings of rough sleepers outside Westminster subway station. The Greater London Authority warns of rising numbers of homeless in the city, with eastern European migrants being the fastest-growing group. © dpa

Government figures show that the gap between rich and poor in Britain – deep-seated and systemic differences – are wider now than 40 years ago. So, we need to mind the gap and work to close it, but also to beware the assumption that market economies are themselves the problem.

The issue for Boris Johnson’s government is how to promote moral capitalism and to cultivate human values which promote social solidarity and the common good, and use the market to champion fairness and justice to close the yawning gaps. This is about fairness and justice. In the 1940s three men – the economist John Maynard Keynes, the social reformer William Beveridge and Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple – all warned against the dangers of running an economy which ignored the poor or unthinkingly widened the gap.

Keynes admonished the men of the City of London: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” He added:

I would like to warn the gentlemen of the City and High Finance that if they do not listen in time to the voice of reason their days may be numbered. I speak to this great city as Jonah spoke to Nineveh. … I prophesy that unless they embrace wisdom in good time, the system upon which they live will work so very ill that they will be overwhelmed by irresistible things which they will hate much more than the mild and limited remedies offered them now.

The economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful – a study of economics as if people mattered,” understood that wealth and prosperity bring with it duties, while John Ruskin (a prominent social thinker of the Victorian era) once rightly declared that “Above all, a nation cannot last as a money-making mob.”

The “social market” – moral capitalism – remains our best hope, but it needs inspired and ethical leadership and to be rooted in personal values that do not feed on greed, selfishness, and the survival of the fiercest. It needs to seek justice and fairness for the poorest.  When we lose sight of that basic truth, the gaps in society widen into chasms. 

Global Britain?

And then, of course, is the issue which dominated the general election – and which has paralyzed Parliament for the past three years: Brexit. As we leave the European Union, a priority will be to test the central claim that departure will enable a hobbled, emasculated Britain to regain its place in the world by strengthening its relationships with the United States, the Commonwealth, and developing economies. 

The EU and the UK must also guard against the elitism of out of touch ‘we know best’ leaders whose narrow agendas play into the hands of populism.

This “truly global Britain” will need to become much more fleet of foot and nimble if such an outcome is to be achieved. Simultaneously, the UK has to reset its relationship with its European neighbors – and show the imagination to forge new mutually advantageous ways of living and working with one another. The sometimes torrid and points-scoring atmosphere of recent years must not be allowed to prevent such a reimagining.

The EU will be the poorer without the UK – which has often been a bulwark against the over centralizing tendencies of Brussels. If the rancid toxicity of frayed relationships which have accompanied its departure can now be dampened down, a looser and more accommodating associate relationship – more in tune with the spirit of the Common Market and European Community rather than the unwanted hegemony of a United States of Europe – could be forged. That would work to the advantage of all its member states and those who wish to remain its friends.

Boris Johnson says his great political hero is Winston Churchill. Perhaps he will now make sense of Churchill’s remark that “We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised.” 

Both the EU and the UK must also guard against the elitism of out of touch “we know best” leaders whose narrow agendas play into the hands of populism. Failure to appreciate the impact of issues like mass migration will further endanger the stability and future cohesion of both unions. 

A refugee camp in Lebanon
Syrian refugees walk between the tents of Al Marj camp. Lebanon, which hosts some 1.5 million Syrians, has urged world powers to step up efforts to return them home regardless of a political solution to the conflict in the war-wracked Syria. © dpa

Every day, 37,000 people join the 70.8 million refugees or displaced people in the world. It is dangerous and absurd to demonize as racists and xenophobes all who question Europe’s ability to absorb migrants. But to do nothing about those who have been uprooted by conflict, persecution and war is a folly too. 

If a new generation of leaders saw the migration crisis as an opportunity rather than a curse, we could do for the displaced what the Marshall  Plan and Bretton Woods agreements did for monetary order and the reconstruction of Europe in 1944/45. In today’s money, the U.S. provided nearly $100 billion to rebuild Western European economies and to lay the foundations for the prosperity enjoyed by millions of people today. 

More challenges

But back to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his hero, Winston Churchill. Thanks to Churchill, Britain is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Will “global Britain” now roar again when it sees injustice or meekly worry about offending potential trading partners? Mr. Johnson should recall Churchill’s warning not to feed the crocodiles, “hoping it will eat you last.”

This warning is especially apt in the context of the UK’s relationship with Communist China. How vocal will the UK be in defense of “two systems, one country” in Hong Kong? Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power, its autonomy, rights and freedoms have been under systematic attack. Democracy, as in 1989, is in a fight to the finish with autocracy. Will that desperate fight matter less than the trade deals that the UK wants to do with China? 

Boris Johnson’s vision for the UK seems ill-defined – is it merely pragmatism, populism and personal ambition?

And what about the contempt in China for the rule of law, justice and human rights: a country which incarcerates to “reeducate” a million Uighur Muslims; imprisons dissenters; silences the internet and media; persecuted religious adherents; and tries to silence those outside its borders who dare to criticize?

And it’s not just China. The sale of our utilities, infrastructure, blue-chip companies and the sucking of wealth into one overheated corner of England poses a fundamental challenge to what makes us proud to be a nation. Boris Johnson’s vision for the UK seems ill-defined – is it merely pragmatism, populism and personal ambition? Does he envy the plutocrats of Russia, China and Turkey? Does he need to be the poor man’s Donald Trump? Or does he have it in him to be something better?


There is a clue to Boris Johnson’s thinking about nation-building in his biography of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. Today’s prime minister wrote in it:

Churchill decides from very early on that he will create a political position that is somehow above left and right, embodying the best points of both sides and thereby incarnating the will of the nation. He thinks of himself as a gigantic keystone in the arch, with all the lesser stones logically induced to support his position. He has a kind of semi-ideology to go with it — a leftish Toryism: imperialist, romantic, but on the side of the working man.

That’s a pretty good description of the general election campaign which Boris Johnson has just fought. His attempt to identify with the working man was captured when he joined a milkman on his early morning deliveries of milk and pushed a trolley with factory workers; when he drove a tractor to knock down “gridlock wall” – and when he dared to target seats in the north of England which had been Labour Party strongholds for decades, where he proposed his own “semi-ideology” as an antidote to the state socialism of Jeremy Corbyn and the bizarre campaign of the Liberal Democrats (whose leader, Jo Swinson, decided to promote gender ideology as a central tenet of the campaign). 

Portrait of British writer, historian, philosopher and mathematician
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote: “No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” A fierce polemicist, he coined “the dismal science” as a derogatory term for economics. © dpa

Although today’s United Kingdom is very different from Churchill’s postwar Britain, and light years away from Emily Davison’s Edwardian England, it is surprising how many of the old challenges have resurfaced and how remote the political classes have become from the people facing those challenges. Take the way in which we govern ourselves.

Consider particularly that Brexit may “be done” but the ending of one union may simply be a curtain-raiser for the end of another. Scotland’s independence movement has plenty of wind in its sails (taking 45 percent of Scottish votes) and like its counterpart in Catalonia will never settle for anything less than a breaking of the union of which it is currently part. 

Northern Ireland, too, with a Remain majority and a disgruntled unionist minority – jilted by Johnson’s Conservatives – does not look like a settled question any longer. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the separation of the people of Northern Ireland into victors and vanquished. That delicate piece of statecraft has been blown to smithereens – with untold dangerous consequences.

Keeping Northern Ireland in the UK costs UK taxpayers over 9 billion pounds annually and Scotland’s deficit (excluding oil revenues) exceeded 14 billion pounds last year.

So, paradoxically, the economic arguments for staying in the UK should strengthen the case within Scotland and Ulster for preserving the Union. However, the asymmetric high-cost economic arguments are chipping away and gazumping traditional Tory support for maintaining it. 

The popular UK television program ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ which looks at personal genealogy, could now be applied to the UK’s national identity crisis.



Having broken one union, they may have developed an appetite for breaking things rather than mending them. It used to be called the Conservative and Unionist Party, but that nomenclature may have reached its shelf life.

Conservative politicians can already be heard making a case for the economic advantages of cutting England and Wales free of huge financial subventions and in shedding jurisdictions that have little Conservative Party support. Losing Scotland and Northern Ireland would simply strengthen their political dominance at Westminster.

So, a governing party that historically had a clear British identity, rather than an English one, no longer has. 

This potential Balkanization of the Disunited Kingdom is further complicated by the identity questions facing any number of ethnic and religious minorities who already have had difficulty in describing themselves as British.

The popular UK television program “Who Do You Think You Are?” which looks at personal genealogy, could now be applied to the UK’s national identity crisis. It reminds me of the story of the circus magician who, having broken the glass ball, then forgot the magic words to put it back together again. 

If Boris Johnson’s government can rediscover the magic words – and look at the challenge as a glass half full, rather than a glass half empty – he could strengthen the wonderful diversity and differences represented in a country which knows that the alternative to learning to live together is not a happy one.

Constitutionally and economically, the general election leaves the UK facing enormous challenges. But what Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle once dubbed “the Condition of England Question” is about more than that. Prime Minister Johnson now has the opportunity to show us what he is made of – and that is the opportunity given by a parliamentary democracy, by “the secret people.” That is certainly worth a cheer.

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