The British general election on Thursday, December 12 was a triumph for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party. Yet the election leaves in its wake troubling questions about the cohesion of Britain today.
The Conservatives needed 326 seats for an overall majority in the House of Commons. The outcome gave them 43.6 percent of the UK vote and 365 members of Parliament against Labour’s 203. Many of the 75 seats gained by the Conservatives came from areas that had not elected a Conservative in 85 years, and in some cases had never elected a Conservative. These were industrial and former mining towns in the midlands and north of England, many of them pro-Brexit in the 2016 referendum. They said yes to Boris’ mantra of “Get Brexit Done.” The logjam in Parliament that frustrated Brexit is now well and truly broken. The election has also highlighted a strange reversal: the Labour Party is now middle-class and London-oriented, while the Conservatives attract the support of traditional working-class communities.
However, Johnson’s victory was not repeated in Scotland. Here the Scottish National Party (SNP) increased its grip on the country by winning 48 of the 59 Scottish constituencies and 45 percent of the Scottish vote. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon promptly claimed this as a mandate for a fresh referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP’s aspiration is for an independent Scotland within the European Union. Deflecting this challenge will be high in Boris Johnson’s priorities.
The incoming government will also have to work out how to keep Northern Ireland trading freely with the Irish Republic (which will remain in the European Union) without introducing a customs border with the rest of the UK (which will have left the EU). Johnson’s opaque claims to have solved this problem have done nothing to calm tensions in Northern Ireland. For the first time, the province elected more MPs wanting union with the Irish Republic than those wishing to maintain the union with the UK.
The election has thus raised the question of what binds four national communities of the United Kingdom into one nation. The royal family remains a powerful symbol, but beyond that the answer seems elusive. The communities of the United Kingdom do share a common history, but collective past easily plays into complaints about English hegemony. Moreover, the past political loyalties that transcended boundaries have frayed. For decades Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, but in this election, the Scottish Labour Party was reduced to just one MP, and the Conservative Party is struggling there also.
Historically, there has been a shared Christian faith, but this is less influential in both England and Scotland. The religious heritage can even be problematical. Northern Ireland’s fierce religiosity is incomprehensible to the rest of the UK. And Scotland’s Calvinist heritage produces an egalitarianism which abhors showmanship and can easily trip up outsiders. An enthusiastic English prime minister with a posh accent will struggle to win Scottish hearts.
In addition to these political tensions, there is a growing generational divide. Young adults strongly support Labour and the Greens. Many feel an older generation has enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, such as free college education and homeownership, only to slam the door behind them when economic turbulence demanded austerity. Younger generations disillusioned by this election will more likely shun conventional politics and support the disruptive protests we have already tasted with Extinction Rebellion. Conventional wisdom reassures us that today’s progressives become tomorrow’s conservatives, but there are signs in both the US and UK that younger adults will remain more radical.
Religious issues surfaced occasionally during the election campaign. The Orthodox chief rabbi of the UK, Ephraim Mirvis, ignited a firestorm when he wrote a Labour victory would leave Jews fearful for their security. He believed Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party made him unfit for high office. Mirvis warned “the very soul of our nation” was at stake. The issue, he implied, mattered for everyone because it raised questions about traditional British values of fairness, tolerance, and inclusion. But the UK election rarely featured hot-button issues for Christians in the United States. Only the pro-life community was probably aware Labour proposed to remove all abortion restrictions, allowing terminations until birth. Labour also proposed legislation that would have permitted self-certification for transgender persons.
In their election post-mortems, Labour politicians have blamed the defeat on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership style. Yet to this writer, at least, Corbyn’s calm manner and thoughtful presentations contrasted well with the bluster of Boris Johnson. Both Corbyn and Johnson faced questions of trust. Johnson was accused of lying during the EU referendum, and there was alsothe delicate matter of his tangled love life. That he chose to install his maîtresse-en-titre in the official residence on Downing Street while technically married to another woman did not become an election issue. By contrast, Corbyn could not shake off his history, which included dalliance with representatives of Hamas and the Irish Republican Army. The political mattered; the personality did not.
While the Conservative campaign highlighted Brexit, Labour focused on reducing the gap between the rich and poor through a massive expansion of the welfare state. University education would be free, and care for the elderly—a growing problem in Britain—would be fully state-funded. There would even be free broadband. But the electorate doubted the affordability of this radical socialism, especially since the party also proposed re-nationalizing industries such as electricity, rail, and water while taking a 10 percent stake in the nation’s largest companies.
Elections often induce political amnesia. Good initiatives proposed beforehand get swept away in election fever. The incoming Conservative government will have a crowded agenda, but it would be a tragedy if the Mountstephen Report lapsed into oblivion. In early 2019, the then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned the bishop of Truro, Philip Mountstephen, to report on the persecution of Christians worldwide. The report was submitted in July 2019 and drew a bleak picture not only of the persecution but also of governmental indifference. The report’s recommendations would have committed the government to defend persecuted Christians. In welcoming the report, Hunt said misguided political correctness had made British governments reluctant to talk about this problem, which he vowed to tackle. Unfortunately, Jeremy Hunt was Boris Johnson’s main rival for leadership of the Conservative Party and lost his cabinet post once Johnson took over. As ever, politics can enable and disable. If the post-election cabinet reshuffle brings Jeremy Hunt back, it would reassure Christians to see someone who shares their faith welcomed at the top table.
Terry Tastard is a Catholic priest in London. He was previously a journalist and is a contributor to Providence.