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The United Kingdom is Falling Apart

This coming Thursday, December 12, the United Kingdom will go to an election. If the opinion polls are to be believed, it will result in another election win for the Tories, under the openly racist, bigoted, classist, and homophobic [1] leadership of Boris Johnson, although we are reminded that opinions polls were not very accurate [2] last time. Nevertheless, even with this caveat in place, it seems reasonable to grimly predict that Johnson and the Tories are most likely to be returned. Such as result will be the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. The return of Johnson will witness an enrichment of a section of the national ruling (landlord and capitalist) class, greater austerity and less public services, greater authoritarianism, increasing pressure from the Celtic nations for leaving the Union, more protracted negotiations on Brexit with relative economic losses, and the transformation of the UK into a rump client-state of Trump's United States.

One may justly ask: How did such an unholy mess come about? Can it be prevented? What can be done if and when there is a return of a Johnson government? In exploring these questions, there are two major subjects. Firstly, is the relationship between economic austerity and Brexit, secondly, the relationship between democracy and informed public opinion. It must also be remembered that this election is being called under unusual circumstances. only two and a half years after the previous general election in June 2017. Following the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, elections are supposed to take place every five years, with the exception of a vote of no-confidence in the government, or if a resolution is supported by at least a two-thirds majority of the House. Following several failures of the former Prime Minister, Teresa May, to pass an Brexit agreement (January 15, February 14, March 12, March 29), leading to her resignation in July, and replacement with Johnson. Johnson, to give credit to a certain political cunning, has turned around the Conservative Party's fortunes by taking up votes that were leaking to the Brexit Party, and the latter has engaged in a tactical choice of noting running in Conservative-held seats.

Brexit and Austerity

It is commonly recognised that the two main issues of this election campaign are Brexit and issues around inequality and austerity. In one corner, the Conservative Party has followed a strong pro-Brexit approach, arguing that a referendum has been held with a result in favour of leaving the European Union. Johnson's pivotal campaign slogan has been "Get Brexit Done". Corbyn's Labour has been more circumspect, with an official policy of not having a policy on Brexit as such, but rather that a second referendum should be held to confirm the exact nature of a deal, or to reverse the initial result (many argue, with some evidence, that the voting public was poorly informed in the first referendum). On the other side, the Conservative Party has very little in the way of economic policy whatsoever, adopting a "more of the same" approach [3], whereas Labour has a very strong package with an increase of some £74 billion/year in new taxes, mainly from increasing corporate tax, and with a commensurate increase in social expenditure. Of note is a surprising decision of some 163 senior economists to argue that Labour deserves to govern [4].

What hasn't been a topic is how the austerity programme of the last decade has fed directly into the Brexit sentiment. Whilst there has been historic opposition to British integration into Europe from covering far-left anti-capitalist perspectives and far-right nationalist-racist perspectives, the rise of the contemporary Brexit sentiment has been directly associated with the latter. Whilst iconic institutions such as the National Health Service have been protected, between 2010 and 2019 there have been more than £30 billion in spending cuts [5] to various housing and social service payments and even libraries [6]. Between 2008 and 2016, disposable income for the bottom 20% of Britons has actually fallen [7], despite a modest general increase in incomes generally. Those on the receiving end of this increased impoverishment will either correctly locate their status as being a result of these cuts (the real disposable incomes of the top 20% has increased by almost 15% in the same period) or they will buy into the claims that EU regulation or migration is to blame. It is the latter group from which popular support for Brexit has grown. Brexit was funded by right-wing national-capitalists who objected to EU labour and human rights laws and have appealed to working-class and elderly people's fears of immigrants and opposition to liberal elites, especially in the face of declining wages [8]. Without the austerity programme, it simply would not have been on the agenda.

Democracy As An Informed Choice

Democracy is founded on a moral principle that all citizens have an equal voice in the decisions of governance. However, this presupposes an informed public sphere [9], a process by which citizens may raise issues of concern, have them debated among their peers according to the evidence, and have an optimal result through communicative action. Now obviously this is a counter-factual description, far removed from how real political decisions are made. But by positing such an ideal it provides a standard from which real political processes can be measured. The further from the ideal, the more a majoritarian democracy is subject to misinformation and the biases of vested interests. Humans are, of course, still prone to various selection biases, short-term advantage over long-term disadvantage, irrational support of charismatic individuals, etc., but so are all political systems. The difference here is whether there is an institutional objective to wilfully mislead the public, which can be used to acquire power at the expense of good public policy.

There is evidence, for example, that the Brexit referendum was carried out in an environment where demagoguery against perceived elites dominated over a dispassionate consideration of the available evidence with major Google searches in the UK after the vote being "What does it mean to leave the EU?" and "What is the EU?" [10], the sort of things that, in an informed democracy, people would know before they cast their ballot. This, of course, was a deliberate strategy of the Leave campaign, which included breaking electoral law limits on spending [11], using fake organisations to channel funds [12], and a series of misleading statements so great that the Electoral Reform Society describing it as justifying a review for all future referendums [13]. Obviously this did not happen; there is a lack of political will to ensure that voters are protected by misleading political advertising in the same way that consumers are protected against misleading advertising.

In such a situation it is unsurprising to discover the UK election has followed suit. Jeremy Corbyn has long been a particular target in the media, with a London School of Economics study in 2016 noting that 75% of newspaper stories either distorted or otherwise misrepresented his actual views on various topics [14], and the current election campaign has seen a continuation of a strong and verified anti-Labour bias [15]. In the current election a dossier produced for Conservative party campaigners is deliberately designed to mislead voters [16] through old, out-of-context, and false claims; if we are in a post-truth world, the winning elections is about manipulation of public opinion through dishonesty; a strategy that is now a modus operandi populist right-wing politics in the Anglophone world, and one which has left many traditional conservatives and liberals appalled.

Probable Results, Future Strategies

In all probability, the new, populist, alt-right Tories will be elected. Whilst their deceptive campaigning is a great cause of their victory, some mistakes certainly lie with Labour as well. Because Labour has tried "listen to both sides" of the Brexit debate, they have failed to bring together in their impressive anti-austerity package a pivotal tie; that the malformed desire for Brexit is a direct result of the austerity programme. Further, they have insufficiently attacked Johnson's central campaign slogan of "Get Brexit Done". As early as February [17] it was reported that focus groups were suffering "Brexit fatigue" and just wanted it to be over, and of course, Johnson has exploited that desire. But as was mentioned then: "The prospect that Brexit will trigger new, longer and more complex talks brings focus groups to horrified silence". As your author remarked then, the "get it done" argument would be used by the Conservatives, and Labour should throw everything they could in explaining how this is not possible through sheer will alone, any more than unilateral desires in divorce proceedings. This, of course, has not been done.

We are left then with probable outcomes; a Tory government dedicated to continued austerity and Brexit. The austerity will, of course, be amplified by Brexit as UK government modeling indicates no matter whatever agreement is reached with Brexit, the long-term effects is a per capita decline in real GDP between 2-8% for 15 years [18]. The poor will, of course, bear the brunt of this as Brexit is very much in the interest of a section of native capital for the same reason that English landlords did very well when Scotland went hungry and Ireland starved under the Corn Laws. On that matter, there is the incompatibility of Brexit with the Good Friday agreement [18], which means either breaking the Good Friday agreement with the imposition of a hard border, risking a revival of The Troubles and requiring greater authoritarianism or abandoning Northern Ireland altogether. Inevitably the strongly pro-remain and anti-Tory Scots will have a renewed push for independence. With increased austerity, increasing authoritarianism, the departure of the Celtic nations, the abandoning of Europe, the breakdown of the welfare system that has held the UK together since the end of the War, we will witness the breakdown and breakup of the United Kingdom.

There is, of course, the possibility of a late swing to the opposition, helped by tactical voting and perhaps even a last-minute realisation of the bumbling damage and division that a Johnson alt-right government will cause. But assuming this does not happen then attention must be turned to the future. Electoral reform is a promising suggestion, and one which the Labour Party astoundingly failed to support in the past (2011 United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum), but it is utterly implausible to think that a Johnson-led government would even think about that, let along "truth in political advertising" legislation. Certainly, there is an enormous role to play for the traditional protest and industrial action; but with unionisation at around 23% compared to near 50% when Thatcher was elected the strength is likewise weaker than the past. In such a situation, one should turn to win the hearts and minds of the people. Politics, as the new conservatives correctly identify is downstream from culture. Whilst people are capable of reasoning, they are very much emotional beings first. The alt-right has exploited ruthlessly, by working on fear stoked by deceit. The liberals and the socialists must never stoop to the so-called "post-truth" environment. When those in power rule by deceit, truth is an act of rebellion. Further, whereas the alt-right will empower their rule through fear, the future alternative must be hope [18]. An alternative vision of the future that provides hope and is built on truth.

Endnotes

1] Joseph Harker, Dear Labour leavers, if you’re tempted to vote Tory, here are 10 reasons to think again, Dec 07, 2019
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/07/labour-leavers-tem...

2] Joe Watts and John Rentoul "Election poll latest: Theresa May will win biggest Tory landslide since Thatcher, final survey predicts", 7 June 2011
https://www.independent.co.uk/News/uk/politics/election-poll-latest-tory...

3] Stuart Adam, General election analysis 2019. Institute for Financial Studies, 2019
https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/IFS-General-election-analysis-2019-Tax-St...

4] David G Blanchflower, Letter: As economists we believe the Labour party deserves to form the next UK government, Financial Times, 26 November 2019
https://www.ft.com/content/d6f56834-0f78-11ea-a225-db2f231cfeae

5] Benjamin Mueller, What Is Austerity and How Has It Affected British Society?, New York Times, Feb 24, 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/24/world/europe/britain-austerity-may-bu...

6] Alison Flood, Britain has closed almost 800 libraries since 2010, figures show, The Guardian, Dec 6, 2019
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/06/britain-has-closed-almost-...

7] Household disposable income and inequality in the UK: financial year ending 2016, Office for National Statistics, 2017
https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhousehold...

8] UK wages worth up to a third less than in 2008, study shows, The Guardian, Feb 1, 2019
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/dec/14/average-uk-worker-earn-...

9] Luke Goode, Jürgen Habermas: Democracy and the public sphere. Pluto Press, 2005.

10] Alina Selyukh, After Brexit Vote, Britain Asks Google: 'What Is The EU?', June 24, 2016, National Public Radio
https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/06/24/480949383/brit...

11] Brexit: Vote Leave broke electoral law, says Electoral Commission, 17 July, 2018, BBC News
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-44856992

12] Joe Murphy, Three top barristers conclude: 'Vote Leave committed crime on Brexit campaign', Evening Standard, 26 March 2018,
https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/three-top-barristers-conclude-crime-c...

13] Rajeev Syal, Electoral reform campaigners slam ‘dire’ EU referendum debate, 1 Sept 2016, The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/01/electoral-reform-campai...

14] Jon Stone, Three-quarters of newspaper stories about Jeremy Corbyn fail to accurately report his views, LSE study finds, The Independent, 16 July, 2016

15] Jon Stone, British newspapers heap positive coverage on Tories while trashing Labour, study finds, Nov 19, 2019
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/general-election-british-...

16] Hilary Osborne, Richard Partington, Revealed: Tory candidates issued with attack manuals on how to smear rivals, The Guardian, Nov 28, 2019
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/nov/28/revealed-tory-candidate...

17] Andrew Cooper, Voters just want Brexit over with. Whether they like it or not, it won’t be, Evening Standard, 21 Feb, 2019
https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/andrew-cooper-voters-just-wan...

18] Eidmon Tesfaye, Secret Brexit analysis warns of financial hit to Britain, Financial Times, Feb 06, 2018
https://www.ft.com/content/b3d35136-0543-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5

19] John Campbell, Brexit: Does the Irish peace accord rule out a hard border?, BBC News, Oct 04, 2019
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-46988529

20] Ben LaBolt, The political right wins by striking fear into its citizens' hearts. The left must raise their hopes, The Guardian, The Guardian, Dec 04, 2019
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/04/the-political-right-win...

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Comments

Earlier version also posted on talk.politics, where it received "highly recommended" status.

https://talkpolitics.dreamwidth.org/2153786.html

Misleading advertising seems to be the only way the Tories think they can win.

https://metro.co.uk/2019/12/10/investigation-finds-88-tory-ads-misleadin...