In 2017, for the second time in a row but also only the second time ever, four different political parties came first in the general election in the UK’s four nations: the Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the DUP in Northern Ireland. Yet this detail of the results merely exemplified a much broader truth – of a United Kingdom that has become increasingly electorally disunited.
In Northern Ireland in 2017, the parties with closest ties to the main British parties – the UUP and SDLP – lost their last seats in the Commons. In Wales, Labour won again (for the 26th successive general election) but on the basis of a campaign that was more distinct from the party in London than ever before; Jeremy Corbyn was neither seen nor heard in any of Labour’s Welsh election broadcasts, which focussed heavily around the Welsh Labour brand and the leadership of Carwyn Jones. Even in Scotland, where there was a partial comeback by the main British parties after the SNP tsunami of 2015, this was achieved via campaigns that were very different from those south of the border. In particular, the most successful of the unionist parties, the Conservatives, ran a campaign that was fronted by Ruth Davidson (not Theresa May) and centred on staunch opposition to a second independence referendum. Ironically, the campaigns of the unionist parties accepted, at least implicitly, the SNP’s fundamental premise – that Scotland is a distinct political community.
In The End of British Party Politics? I argued that these developments in 2017 built upon some much longer-term trends. A combination of longer-term structural factors – including the rise of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and devolution – and short-term contingent political choices have pushed party and electoral politics to become increasingly divided between the constituent nations of the UK. Voting patterns have become more distinct; so also have become structures of party organisation and leadership; and the manifestos and campaigns that parties offer during elections. Voters no longer face a common menu of electoral options across Britain, and they increasingly make disparate choices.
But could a 2019 Brexit election put this into reverse? Intuitively it would seem highly implausible that Brexit might do anything to bring the UK together. Daily, if not hourly, the media offer us reminders of how the issue has created a deeply divided country. The angry scenes at Westminster are echoed in the opinion polls, where support for compromise has steadily eroded, and Remainers and Leavers seem further apart in their views than ever.
Yet as I argued in The End of British Party Politics? in a democratic political system it can be partly our differences that help bring us together. If “we have a common political debate, and a common set of political options…then we may come to feel part of a common political community.” Might an election around Brexit provide such a common focus? Although the opposing sides would argue about the issue – and probably quite viciously – might such a debate offer the means towards restoring a more common political conversation across the different nations of the UK?
A Brexit election could mean one where the same central issue defined the debate across all the nations of the UK. It would also see very contrasting viewpoints and proposals on the issue being offered to the voters. While this would hardly be a recipe for political consensus, it would also mean that voters were given a genuine range of choices: no-one would reasonably be able to complain that ‘they’re all the same’.
But before any shafts of optimism break into the current stygian political landscape, we need to understand the different political contexts in which Brexit is experienced across the UK and the different potential meanings of a Brexit election. In Northern Ireland, the current parliamentary arithmetic has dictated that the views of the DUP have been given substantial attention in recent times. Yet we should remember that Northern Ireland voted Remain, and the DUP on Brexit represent very much a minority viewpoint there. A Brexit-focussed UK election would likely offer a forceful reminder of the lack of interest in, and serious concern for, the potential problems posed for Northern Ireland that has been evident throughout the last few years in most mainland British debate. Such an event could well continue to push voters in the direction of greater support for Irish unity.
Scotland voted for Remain even more overwhelmingly than did Northern Ireland in June 2016, but similarly had its preferences cancelled out by the demographic weight of England. Any Brexit election would undoubtedly become linked to the other defining referendum of recent Scottish experience, that on independence in September 2014. Current opinion polling suggests that a general election will likely mean, for the third successive time, the SNP winning a majority of Scottish MPs, and maybe getting a significant political boost for their broader agenda.
And for the other non-English nation of the UK? Wales is certainly not likely to be immune from the anger and division that a Brexit election will probably further exacerbate. A general election may or may not produce a clear majority behind the Brexit that Wales voted for; and any Brexit appears rather unlikely to deliver tangible benefits, certainly in the short-term, for many of the Welsh communities that backed it in June 2016. But on matter, the clear majority preference of Welsh for more than a decade and a half – for substantial Welsh autonomy within an effectively functioning multi-national UK – is only likely to be rendered even further out of reach.
Brexit continues to cause divisions – not only within the nations of the UK, but also between them.
Professor Roger Awan-Scully is Head of Politics and International Relations and Professor of Political Science in Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics and Wales Governance Centre. He also runs the Elections in Wales blog.
This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Welsh Brexit blog nor Cardiff University.