As UK elections go, the 2017 vote will probably be scrutinised by psephologists more than most. Described as a ‘dead woman walking’ Theresa May is seen by many as a lost cause soon to be replaced. The election itself has been described as cynically opportunistic producing a result that produces a Government with no legitimacy. But is this anything more than froth and bluster whilst the underlying political process does what is should?
It may seem a very long time ago when Theresa May called a snap election although it is barely six weeks. Of course, the whole idea of a snap election ran against the idea of fixed term Parliament’s introduced (with support from members of most parties) by her predecessor, David Cameron.
In that sense, elections other than on fixed 5-year terms should have been a thing of the past. To vary this would take an exceptional circumstance (for the possibility to be suggested), a vote in Parliament and the agreement of two-thirds of MP’s before any ‘snap’ election could take place.
Like it or not, that’s what happened and MP’s from all parties voted for a snap election on 8th June. Many have complained, (often insincerely in my view) about ‘Tory opportunism’ in calling an election when they thought they could win. They seem surprised any political leader could stoop so low as to put short-term party gain over National interest. The alternative, I presume, would be to call an election when it provides no advantage when you think you can’t win or when it suits your political opponents?
To those complaining about cynical tactics, I would recommend reading Machiavelli’s The Prince as an excellent and timeless introduction to the art of retaining power. Alternatively, Joan River’s cry of ‘Oh grow up!‘ springs to mind.
Do I think those complaining about opportunism have a point? – Yes, but twas ever thus. Do I think it makes sense for politicians to act in that way? – Absolutely, it can do (from their perspective) and has suited all parties dating back to at least the 19th century. Does it give me grounds for complaint? – Not at all. I may as well complain about the local priest/vicar always rattling on about religion, or a thief’s propensity to steal. – It’s in their nature and to expect something different doesn’t recognise the nature of the beast.
Theresa May’s opportunistic (and ultimately losing) bet that her reported lead of 20 percentage points was unassailable, is nothing particularly new. The Tories have done this before. Many observers cite Margaret Thatcher as taking advantage of her popularity following the Falkland’s conflict to win the general election in 1983.
However, before you rush to label this as typical Tory tactics, consider no lesser a figure that William Gladstone (Liberal). He lost no time in calling an election to take advantage of the increased franchise (and a resulting increase in supporters favouring his party) following the newly passed Reform Act of 1857. So, this behaviour has been going on for over a century and a half.
Similarly, this month’s election has strong similarities to the snap election of 1966 called by Harold Wilson (Labour). He took advantage of a Tory opposition in disarray with an unproven leader (Edward Heath) perceived at the time as being weak and unelectable. Wilson called an election having seen a possible window to increase his slender working majority (sound familiar at all?). The only difference being that Wilson pulled off the job moving from a majority of 4 to one of 96.
So, I for one remain unconvinced that this election is any more opportunistic than some of those that have preceeded it. So what of the charge that a government resulting from the election would have no legitimacy?
Of course, terms like democratic legitimacy are bandied about fairly easily, in most cases by one of the more comic like newspapers. Presumably, the legitimacy referred to in those instances is measured by the degree to which it aligns with the political view of the proprietor, editor or reporter. However, there is a widely accepted academic definition.
“Democratic legitimacy is the accepted right to exercise power. Where it has been achieved through a democratic route it is conferred by the people and also through the accepted political framework of the State”
(Source: Legitimacy and Politics – Cambridge University Press)
Using this definition, it seems clear that any viable government resulting from the democratic route of the general election is likely to be accepted by the political frameworks of the State. If that is true, any party or parties able to command the confidence of the House has democratic legitimacy and a mandate. That doesn’t mean we have to like them, nor does it mean they are necessary ethical, moral or otherwise exemplary parties. However, it does mean the Government formed is not dependent on its political shade or makeup but is legitimate due to the manner of its election and construction.
This definition would support previous coalitions including the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970’s and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of 2010. Despite his protestations, the one model it wouldn’t support is Jeremy Corbyn’s slightly strange claim last weekend that he could still be Prime Minister. His wish to propose an alternative minority Government and have the House vote on this during the Queens Speech debate falls foul of the accepted political framework of the State. In this case, the incumbent Prime Minister (by Convention) gets first attempt to form a Government that can gain the support of the House.
The history of British satirical comment has been strong since Hogarth’s sketches of the 1740’s. In recent days, the tone of debate has changed slightly suggesting (in this case) that the Conservatives are not worthy of governing if they rely on the Democratic Unionist Party for confidence and supply.
My problem with this position is that the DUP is a lawful and established (if somewhat fundamentalist) political party operating in Northern Ireland. It is true that the Democratic Unionist Party has a past that has been questionable at times and had links to paramilitary groups. That doesn’t make them unique in the province. Sinn Fein among others have a similar history.
Sinn Fein have been sufficiently rehabilitated to have shared political power with unionist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that’s acceptable and welcomed (which judging by the assorted peace prize nominations it is) I really don’t see the issue with the DUP in England.
Some observers feel a UK Government containing one of the Northern Ireland parties is bound to fail as it would remove the impartial position taken by the UK Government since the Good Friday agreement was signed. They hold that issues surrounding border controls and tax avoidance across Non-EU boundaries could even rekindle the troubles and destroy the peace process.
What I think this misses is the strongly stated and re-stated positions of all parties within the Island of Ireland that a solution must be found to the border question given its particular relevance to the peace process. Interestingly, a position also held by not only the British and Irish Governments but also the EU itself. Nobody is going to place a border before peace.
Also, there is the small matter of the populations of both communities in Northern Ireland being unwilling to see a return to the violence of the troubles. If it did return, it wouldn’t be because of this issue where community cohesion (on this narrow point) is strong.
To this point, there seems nothing in the arguments put forward to suggest Theresa May’s Government is ‘stillborn’. A more recent claim by the Liberal Democrats that the Prime Minister should be ashamed of carrying on seems utterly bizarre. It seems to completely misunderstand the option of a coalition government. That in itself is strange given the Lib Dems were part of the most recent coalition. The same process of trying to form a grouping that can command the support of the house that brought them to power in 2010 is the same process being criticised by them now.
Some of the comments in the media (social and otherwise) and from politicians gets close to suggesting that the process of building support is somehow ‘grubby’ and unworthy of politics.
However, I would support any party in their attempt to form a workable government. It’s not been seen frequently in the UK Parliament but it’s absolutely part of the way the British Parliamentary System evolves, produces a workable government or causes an unworkable government to fail. It’s hard to see how this whole period, however unusual and tense, is anything more than the Parliamentary system doing what it should do.
I may not have bottomless reserves of faith in politicians (of any party) but I have much more faith in a quirky, organically grown, flawed but reliable parliamentary process to produce a result which although we may not agree with it, is workable at least for a while.
For these reasons, I don’t know whether the May Government will survive through a number of years or fall in a matter of weeks. Whatever the outcome, the reason won’t be because of a broken system, I would argue it will be because that system imperfect as it is, constantly tests a Government as being fit for purpose and that will decide the outcome.
I’m reminded of the quote (origin disputed) that ‘we get the Governments we deserve’. Maybe this is a perfect example of just that assertion.