A Brief Explanation of What’s Been Happening in UK Politics For Those Who Don’t Understand

This is primarily aimed at my North American friends, many of whom want to know why every single person in the UK has been screaming about political stuff for several weeks.

The first thing you need to understand is that in the UK we don’t elect our Prime Minister directly — the Prime Minister is anyone who has the confidence of Parliament. For a Prime Minister to stay in power, they have to be able to convince a majority of MPs to vote for their programme of government. It’s possible for the Prime Minister to change without an election, if their own party decides they no longer support them or the Prime Minister steps down willingly.

This means that the Prime Minister is in a more precarious position than a directly elected leader — if they can’t get their party to support them, for whatever reason, they lose the job and get replaced by someone who can.

When David Cameron came to power in 2010, his party, the Conservatives, didn’t win a majority of seats in the election, and so he went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the party I’m in. Neither party had enough seats for a majority, but the two combined had a comfortable one. This worked well for Cameron — he’s on the left of his own party, and the Lib Dems’ then leader, Nick Clegg, was on the right of mine, and so both were able to work together and create a government which no-one was particularly happy with, but which at least managed to hold itself together.

That’s more of an achievement than it sounds. The last Conservative government, under John Major (Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997) had torn itself apart. There were many reasons for that, but one was that the party was deeply split over the issue of Europe. Its leadership has always supported membership of the European Union, but the hard right wing of the party had never liked the idea of it.

This split in the Tories (the nickname for the Conservatives that almost everyone uses, the same way they use GOP for the Republicans in the US) had continued, and had been made worse by the popularity of another political party, the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.
If the Tories are the equivalent of the Republicans (and Cameron in this picture would be a moderate Romney-style Republican, more concerned with tax cuts for the rich than in punishing poor and black people), UKIP are the Tea Party, and while they only have one MP (a former Tory) they get a lot of the vote, on a platform that consists solely of not liking foreigners.

So from 2010 to 2015, because he was working with the most pro-European party, Cameron could avoid dealing with the massive split in his own party. “Oh, I’d love to deal with it, but those damn Lib Dems, I’m so terribly sorry”. But then came the 2015 election.

Cameron has a way of dealing with political splits he doesn’t like — he has a referendum on them. That happened in 2011 with the coalition government, when the Lib Dems wanted to change the voting system and he didn’t. He called a referendum, and he won. In 2014, because the Scottish people had voted for a party that wanted independence for Scotland, he called a referendum on that, and won.

So in the Conservative manifesto (the party platform) for the 2015 election, there was a section which said that if they won a majority, they’d call a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Cameron wasn’t expecting the Tories to win a majority — all the polls said that just like in 2010, no party would win a majority — so he was expecting to have to work with the Lib Dems again and not have to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the polls had underestimated how angry Lib Dem voters were for the party going into coalition, and the Lib Dems lost nearly all their MPs. And the worst thing for Cameron, or the country, happened — the Tories won a majority, but an absolutely tiny one.

This meant Cameron was essentially held to ransom by the right wing of his party. He *had* to call a referendum.

Meanwhile — and this will become important later — the Labour party, the main opposition party, had a leadership election themselves. They put up three dull centrist candidates, and a left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour always put up a left-wing candidate, who always loses, so that they can say “we wanted to hear all views from all sides of the party”, and keep the left wing of their own party quiet. This tactic didn’t work for them this time though, and Corbyn won easily in a ballot of party members — which means that Labour’s leader has almost no support among their MPs.

So the referendum on Europe happened. Cameron’s hope was that he would win the referendum again, as he had the others — it would shut the right wing of the party up. “We voted, you lost, deal with it”.

But then Cameron’s old schoolfriend Boris Johnson, another moderate centrist Tory MP, came out in favour of leaving the EU. Johnson was, at the time, comfortably the most popular politician in the country, and until he became leader of the leave campaign he was in favour of the EU. His hope appeared to be that the leave campaign would lose, but only just, and that he would be able to gain the support of the Tory right and become the next leader of the party, and thus the next Prime Minister.

The campaign was the nastiest in British political memory. The leave side, in particular, used racism in its campaign to great effect. Near the end of the campaign, a centrist pro-remain Labour MP, Jo Cox, was murdered in the street by a pro-leave fanatic shouting “Britain First!” (the name of a prominent neo-Nazi group). The Leave campaign then disrupted a public memorial for her by flying a plane above it with a pro-Leave banner.

And the result of this was that Leave won, at 51.9% of the vote to Remain’s 48.1%.

Almost immediately, the shit hit the fan. The pound collapsed, to the point where it’s now less stable than bitcoin. Racist attacks increased fivefold as violent racists were emboldened (there were, of course, non-racist voters for Leave. But given the tenor of the campaign, most violent racists saw it as an endorsement of their own views). The biggest economic crash in decades is happening, as a direct result of all this. The British economy has lost trillions of dollars in the two and a bit weeks since the vote, and it hasn’t finished yet.

The vote was, however, an advisory vote. It could theoretically be ignored by the government… if they wanted to make sure they never got elected again. To actually leave the EU, the Prime Minister has to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Once that happens, the UK has two years to arrange an orderly exit — and only *after* that can it start to negotiate new trade terms with the EU.

Oh, and we have no trade deals with *anyone*, because all trade deals for the last forty years have been made by the EU, not Britain. We’re not even members of the WTO on our own — we’ll have to negotiate membership of that, which will take five years.

Oh, and we don’t have anywhere near enough trained trade negotiators for even one deal, let alone setting up deals with every other country in the world separately.

Also, Scotland voted hugely in favour of remaining in the EU, so it’s widely expected that if the government try to drag Scotland out against the Scottish people’s will, there’ll be a second independence referendum, and Scotland will leave the UK this time. Taking the UK’s oil and gas (all in Scottish territory) with it.

Oh, and also the Northern Ireland peace process, which has almost eliminated terrorism over the question of Irish sovereignty for the last twenty years, is based entirely on agreements that are themselves based on EU treaties which will now be null and void.

David Cameron announced he would resign as soon as a new Conservative leader could be chosen — he was reported as saying “why should I do all the hard shit?”. The new leader was widely expected to be Boris Johnson — who looked sickened by the idea of taking control of this gigantic mess.

But then Michael Gove, Johnson’s biggest political ally, announced that he didn’t think Johnson was up to the job, and he, Gove, should have it instead. So Johnson bowed out of the race. As did Gove, a couple of days later, when he realised that no-one in his party could stand him after he stabbed Johnson in the back. Over the next few days, everyone else dropped out except Theresa May.

May, who will be the Prime Minister from Wednesday, has been Home Secretary for several years. During that time she has, among other things, criminalised literally everything that isn’t explicitly legal, deported LGBT people to countries where they face imprisonment or death, stated that she wants an end to the very concept of human rights, and had a van driven round London with a message telling immigrants to “go home” painted on the side. She was the most moderate candidate in the race, as the Conservative right has been so emboldened.

Cameron announced today that May would be replacing him as Prime Minister. When journalists tried to ask him questions, he just sang a little tune as he walked away.

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, also stepped down, as has his deputy, Paul Nuttalls of the UKIPs. Their leader in Wales, disgraced former Tory MP and well-known lying scumbag Neil Hamilton, has suggested that if the government don’t invoke article 50, there should be an armed revolution.

This is, you would think, a golden opportunity for the Labour party, and so they’ve taken that opportunity — to fight among themselves. Labour MPs blamed the loss on Jeremy Corbyn, who they suspect of being secretly anti-EU, and so they’ve spent the last two weeks trying to persuade him to step down and let someone more centrist be leader. He’s refused, despite only forty of Labour’s MPs supporting him and 172 opposing. An anti-Corbyn MP, Angela Eagle, is now standing for election as leader against him, and the other MPs are looking for legal ways they can keep Corbyn off the ballot this time. Labour party members in Eagle’s own constituency are looking for ways of keeping *her* off the ballot in the next general election.

However, Labour’s MPs are all agreed on one thing — despite the fact that the party campaigned to remain in the EU, despite the fact that just the possibility of leaving is causing huge turmoil, and despite the fact that two thirds of Labour voters wanted to stay in the EU, they’re going to push the government to leave.

If Corbyn is on the leadership ballot, he will win again. At which point it is quite likely that the bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party will form a new centrist party, possibly with some moderate Tories. That party will have almost no members, but a lot of MPs. The Labour party, meanwhile, will have almost no MPs but a lot of members.

The Liberal Democrats, now left as the only pro-EU UK-wide party even though 48.1% of voters support the EU, have almost no MPs *or* members, though over 16000 new ones have joined since the referendum. Tim Farron, the party’s leader, is now the longest-serving party leader of a national party in the UK. He will have been in the post a year as of Saturday.

So that’s where we were up to at the time I started writing this blog post. That was, however, nearly three hours ago. Given that we have, pretty much every hour for the last two and a half weeks, had some sort of new political news that as recently as last month would have sounded like a very bad piece of over-exaggerated satire, I can’t guarantee that this isn’t completely out of date, and that by the time you read this we won’t be looking back on that halcyon time of 10:28PM on the 11th July from the terrible dystopian future of 11PM on the 11th July, and thinking how naive we were not to predict the horrors between now and then…

This blog post was brought to you by the generous people who back me on Patreon. They pay me in US dollars, which means that the $62 I get for this post will, by the time it reaches me at the end of this month, be worth enough to buy the UK several times over. If you want me to look generously on you, my vassals, when I am lording it over you with my hard currency, you might want to join them.

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14 Responses to A Brief Explanation of What’s Been Happening in UK Politics For Those Who Don’t Understand

  1. LarryS. says:

    Andrew, as they say here in the U.S.A. (and maybe in the U.K. as well), “you are the man.” Thanks so much for this piece, I have a much better understanding of what is happening in your country, it is much appreciated.

    Sad times for both of our countries at present, with the same old hatreds/prejudices raising their heads….

  2. Kate Griffin says:

    This post offers a great perspective, but why are you forgetting the Green Party? The Lib Dems aren’t “the only pro-EU UK-wide party”. The Greens for a Better Europe campaign was a UK-wide pro-Europe campaign. I know technically the Greens in the UK are three different parties, but they all have the same position on EU membership and worked together to get the message across.

    On the same subject, Tim Farron is not ” the longest-serving party leader of a national party in the UK”. Natalie Bennett has been leading the Green Party of England & Wales since 2012.

  3. Chris says:

    I just thought I’d add in these videos of a European law professor at Liverpool University.
    I find them to be fascinating; the second about trade negotiations and the UK’s strategy, until now, particularly so:

  4. TAD says:

    From everything I’ve read, I think one of the big problems that the UK has (from a liberal perspective) is that the left is divided among too many parties. There has to be some mergers, or the Tories are going to enjoy a long period of uninterrupted rule, I suspect.

    • Mary says:

      Either that or the left needs to start supporting proportional representation. My Labour MP pointed out at a constituency meeting the other week that we’re actually weird in Europe for having one left wing party which includes both social democrats and socialists: several other European countries have more than one leftwing party which regularly go into coalition with each other in the context of a PR system, whereas our FPTP system means we have a huge party which is a coalition in itself.

  5. TAD says:

    The left needs to stop warring among themselves over minor policy differences.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      There are four parties that have more than one MP in Britain and that could be considered “left” by anyone at all.
      The SNP exists to promote an independent Scotland. That’s its raison d’etre. It can’t achieve that goal by merging with other larger parties, which don’t want an independent Scotland, and doesn’t see that as a “minor policy difference” but the basis of their political activism.
      Plaid Cymru exists to promote an independent Wales. That’s its raison d’etre. It can’t achieve that goal by merging with other larger parties, which don’t want an independent Wales, and doesn’t see that as a “minor policy difference” but the basis of their political activism.
      The Liberal Democrats exist to promote liberalism and democracy. Those things can’t be achieved by merging with other larger parties, which are both illiberal and anti-democratic. We don’t see those as “minor policy differences” but as the basis of our political activism.
      The Labour Party exists, according to its own constitution, “to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party”. That *obviously* can’t be achieved outside the Labour Party.
      These differences are as profound as those parties’ differences from the Tories — in many cases significantly *more* profound than those. I am on the left, but have no political views in common with Gerald Kaufman, my local MP.
      That also goes for other parties with fewer or no MPs, like the Greens, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, and so on.
      All those parties also existed when Labour won three elections with massive landslides — and overall those parties took a significantly greater share of the vote then than they do now. The right are also split, with UKIP taking a greater share of the vote than any of the smaller left-wing parties.
      The problem is, in fact, the exact *opposite* of the one you claim. It’s that we have an electoral system that’s completely unfit for purpose, like the American one, and that forces people to join giant parties like Labour and the Tories. Those parties have near-identical platforms, and both have such a broad range of membership that people are forced into parties with people who they disagree with on literally every issue. This means that at times of crisis those parties turn inwards, and fight internally over control of the two large parties, rather than having an actual principled position.
      The solution isn’t for everyone else to join in that infighting, but to bring in a voting system that is at least somewhat democratic.

      • TAD says:

        I understand what you’re saying, and I don’t disagree with you actually. It all leaves the Conservatives in the much stronger position tactically, though.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          No it doesn’t.
          First, because you’re still assuming that it’s the Conservatives on one side, and all the others on the other. It really, really, isn’t. Labour has more in common with the Conservatives than with any of the other parties.Those other parties *do not want Labour to win*, any more than they want the Tories to. They want to win themselves.

          But also, the non-Labour left parties got 17% of the vote, while UKIP, the non-Tory right party, got 12.7% — that 4.3% difference is smaller than the 6.3% difference between Labour and the Tories. And the left parties are often competitive in different areas. Labour, for example, will never win in Devon or Cornwall, while the Lib Dems can.
          Vote-splitting isn’t nearly as big a problem as many assume it is — and if it was, again, the solution would be to change the voting system.

          But the idea that the Tories are in a strong position is also absolutely wrong. 2015 was the first time in twenty-three years that they managed to get a majority. In neither 2015 nor 1992 did they get a *working* majority — one that will keep them going through a whole parliament without having to cut deals with other parties.

          The problem isn’t that people are refusing to fall into line behind one of two near-identical parties without being given any incentive to do so, it’s that we have a voting system that favours *both* those two parties at the expense of smaller ones.

          My friend Jennie posted this a few years back — https://miss-s-b.dreamwidth.org/1151718.html — but it’s pretty accurate as far as the last election goes (the current leaders of both the Lib Dems and Labour are to the left of where she’s placed the leaderships, and the Lib Dem leader is also more liberal now than the one we had last year, but we’re looking at the last election, before that change). I’m one of the “most of my friends” on that graphic. Manchester’s Labour Party are somewhere around where Tony Blair is. Voting for someone as far away from me on that graph as that wouldn’t make any sense.

          • TAD says:

            I guess I still see Labour as a left-of-center party, so I instinctively lump them in with the Greens, Lib Dems etc., as parties who share common ground. Obviously you would disagree with that. I’m an American though, and I tend to see things from a 2-party perspective. I understand what you’re saying though.

            It seems odd that someone as far right as Theresa May is PM right now. The center of the UK seems much further to the left of her. I wouldn’t think she’d last long as PM…..I guess we’ll see.

  6. plok says:

    These days it seems there’s always talk of tactically “merging” parties, but I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be. In Canada there was a “Unite The Right” movement in the 90s, which aimed at combining back together the old Progressive Conservative party and its smaller and more far-right tearaway the Reform party…with the extremely odd result that the Reformers swallowed the Tories instead of the other way around. This was to put back an old “majority” that had not won every election anyway, yet somehow it was believed by the Harperites that this would be enough to wrest control from the hated Liberals and then keep it for themselves in perpetuity. What they actually got was a couple highly-destructive kicks at the can, a completely unexpected election result, and then an eventual loss to a party that PROMISED to run deficits, and now I don’t even know what the “Conservative Party of Canada” even is anymore, except I guess a party representing the oilpatch that is desperate to hang onto FPTP. Because what really happened is that a PC majority of the 80s splintered into other parties that were by turns nationalistic and reactionary, and they couldn’t put all that back together anyway

    …And then in the end, even though they were the United Right party, their opponents didn’t actually need to merge to defeat them, because voters were very crabby and DIDN’T WANT THIS: so first the number of voters who voted in a way they weren’t supposed to went up, and then the number of people who cast a vote who weren’t supposed to went up, and then Harper went out. And all the time, what the Harperites would’ve preferred is a strict choice between two parties, the Traditional Goodies and the Traditional Baddies, because then it would’ve just been about who had the best negative ads, that were aimed at the smallest portion of the electorate…but in fact when the Liberal leader in the election-before-last tried to insist that the choice was simply “a blue door or a red door”, he fell right down the trap-door, to third-party status. Nobody wants a duopoly here, who isn’t a Big Two politician or a pure ideologue; I’m sure they believe it’d be of great benefit to them, but we can be terribly sure it’d suck for us, especially considering that we already have a problem in that anyone who can win both Ontario and Quebec is guaranteed a majority, and if you had to pick just one you’d pick Ontario. Big cities may matter in this diseased game of Risk, but populous regions matter more, so I dream of a day when the election won’t already be won and lost by the time my westernmost vote is counted, but under FPTP that dream can never come true. My whole life I’ve had a vote, but not a SAY…and I have yet to see the merger proposed that would give me more of one instead of less of one.

    Sorry: RANT!! The American context is different, so none of this is intended to beat up on TAD, please accept my apologies TAD. But if I were the UK Tories I would not be feeling super-secure about how the logic of vote-splitting was going to keep me in power for a generation. I mean it is all turning to shit right in their HANDS, eh? And it’s all on TV. So just how much public humiliation can faithful Tory voters really put up with?

    (Oh look, Boris Johnson’s in the Cabinet or something now…the only man alive who needs no Spitting Image puppet…)

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