ELECTIVE dictatorship is an ever present danger in Westminster’s antiquated system of government, where the Prime Minister still exercises the pre-democratic powers of monarchy. The Fixed-term Parliament Act of 2011 (FTPA) was one attempt to modernise our system by denying political leaders the undemocratic right to call an election at a moment of their own choosing: ie whenever the opposition party was weakest.
David Cameron enacted the FTPA, which is the norm in most democratic countries, and Theresa May voted for it in 2011. So much for all that. She wasn’t going to let the law get in the way of exploiting Labour’s internal divisions to win a quick and dirty 100-seat majority. Labour went along with her coup, as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out, with all the enthusiasm of turkeys voting for an early Christmas.
There really is no justification for this snap election. Theresa May said repeatedly that Britain needed “a period of stability” following Brexit, and she was right. The world needs a period of stability following Donald Trump, Syria and heightened international tensions in South East Asia. Voters have no idea of what kind of EU relationship they’re voting for – and neither does the Government Theresa May is a serial abuser of the democratic process.
Last year she tried to use royal prerogative to push through Article 50, triggering Brexit without MPs being allowed a vote. It was left to the Supreme Court judges to remind her that Britain is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy. Then Queen May opposed Parliament’s right to have a meaningful say on the final deal with Brussels on the grounds that this might “weaken her hand” in negotiations with Brussels. She dismissed the Scottish Parliament vote for a referendum in 2019, saying “now is not the time”, then called her own snap election. This she justified on the dubious grounds that political parties are opposing her in Parliament – which is exactly what they are supposed to do.
Theresa May is behaving like a Home Counties version of Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan. She’s even refused to submit to a televised debate, which is now an essential element of the democratic process. Presumably she senses that all her early promises to govern for “working-class families” and not “the privileged few” will disintegrate, if exposed to view. For it is becoming clearer by the day that Brexit was not just about Europe – it was something akin to a right-wing coup.
The most conservative elements of the British Establishment saw the narrow and ambiguous 52 per cent Leave vote in June as an opportunity finally to push through the kind of reforms many have dreamed of since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Leading Brexit ministers like Liam Fox have made no secret of their desire for a “small state” solution. The International Trade Secretary, who has close links with right-wing think tanks here and in America, wants to roll back the remnants of the welfare state and turn Britain into a low-tax, low-regulation haven for the most exploitative form of global capitalism. Fox even claimed that David Cameron had collaborated with “a great socialist coup”.
Britain is to be placed on a level playing field, not with socially responsible Europe, but with low-wage countries like India and China. British capitalism will have to be reconfigured, abolishing regulations on the environment and consumer welfare that impede profit. Nor must Parliament be permitted to get in the way of this global Britain project. Hence the language increasingly used by the Brexit press to demonise opposition, such as “crush the saboteurs”. The role of the opposition parties is to act as cheerleaders, not critics.
The inevitability of hard Brexit is the stand-out reason why this election has been called; May is running for cover. It is increasingly possible that Britain will crash out of Europe into the nether world of World Trade Organisation rules. Banks and car manufacturers are already making plans to relocate to Ireland or Eastern Europe to retain the privileges of membership of the European Single Market. The UK will no longer be able to sell its high-value professional services, which account for most of British national earnings, unless we accept the rules of the EU club. And since that means accepting the rulings of the European Court of Justice, free movement of workers and continuing payments to the EU, there is no way that this will be acceptable to a Brexit government intoxicated by dreams of empire.
And what stands in the way of this Brexit dystopia? A well-meaning but ineffectual Labour leader in Jeremy Corbyn. Actually, he made a rather spirited start to his campaign in his Church House speech, promising to “break the rules” that the “wealth extractors” impose on left-wing governments. It was a promising attempt to capture the populist, anti-establishment mood of the times. He handled the questions from a hostile media intelligently and with genuine passion, especially over the “vilification” that radical politicians have endured since the days of Keir Hardie, Labour’s first MP.
Labour’s policies also have the merit of being rather popular. A £10 minimum wage, rail nationalisation, free school meals, tuition fees, and supporting the NHS score well in polls, even if Labour doesn’t. The Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has been criticised for claiming that people earning more than £70,000 are rich and should pay more in tax. But that only indicates how out of touch most metropolitan commentators really are. It’s three times median earnings in Scotland, currently £22,900 according to the Office of National Statistics.
As the campaign progresses, Jeremy Corbyn will get fairer treatment if only because of the Representation of the People Act, and the obligation on broadcasters to give equal time to the opposition. However, we must be realistic about Labour’s chances. Most of the damage to Corbyn has already been done – not least by his own party. There has been no shortage of Labour MPs willing to trash Jeremy Corbyn, on and off the record. Only last year, Labour’s Parliamentary group of MPs passed a motion of no confidence in their own leader, and most experienced Labour politicians refused to serve in his cabinet. It is hardly surprising that Labour is 20 points behind in the polls. Labour’s fratricidal civil war has made victory in this election an all but impossible task.
The Tory election guru, Lynton Crosby, is preparing an unprecedented campaign of vilification against Corbyn, presenting him as a friend of terrorists, a closet Remainer and a soft touch for benefits cheats. The Labour leader has already been forced to reject any repeat referendum on Brexit, and any broad progressive alliance with other parties. Mind you that hasn’t stopped the Tories accusing Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon of plotting “a coalition of chaos”. No doubt he will be depicted on billboards, like Ed Miliband, in Nicola Sturgeon’s top pocket.
For her part, Sturgeon has made clear that this general election is not about indyreft2, the mandate for which has secured in the Scottish Parliament. It is about offering resistance to the right-wing Conservative Party and policies like the rape clause. This general election should be an opportunity to remind voters of the £12bn cut in welfare spending, of which measures like the two-child cap are only a part. Much of the SNP leader’s anti-austerity manifesto from the 2015 general election still applies – though she might have difficulty calling for a restoration of the 50p tax band, having rejected it in Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament can mitigate some of the worst cuts, like the bedroom tax, but it is powerless to reverse the welfare and economic policies of Westminster. This has to be a key message of the SNP campaign. Nicola Sturgeon will also warn that, far from Scotland getting any special post-Brexit arrangement like Northern Ireland or Gibraltar, the Tories are planning to curb the powers and authority of the Scottish Parliament itself.
Nicola Sturgeon is an impressive performer who, during the 2015 general election, briefly became the most popular politician in the UK. It is no surprise that Theresa May is running scared of meeting her in televised debate. But the absence of the Prime Minister from the airwaves is an opportunity for the First Minister to lead a progressive front against continuing Tory austerity.
Of course, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, will try to make this election about independence, but she will have a hard job. Few voters will be in any doubt that this is about challenging a right-wing Brexit government in Westminster, which has all but extinguished opposition and looks likely to govern for the foreseeable future.
The SNP will almost certainly lose seats in this general election. The tsunami of 2015 was a unique event and unrepeatable. But this election should be about more than one party. All progressive politicians in Scotland need to ensure that the Scottish Conservatives, who on paper, could return five seats in June, do not regain a foothold in Scottish politics. The greatest service they could perform, not just for Scotland, would be to encourage tactical voting to ensure that the Tories are wiped out in Scotland – as they were in 1997.