June is bringing the British isles moderate temperatures and heavy rain. The contrast befits Britain’s mood, for the country is facing four wrenching dilemmas.
The first concerns who should form the coming government after the 8 June parliamentary election. The choice is hardly about a conservative party with centre-right positions versus a leftist opponent. It is also not, as often depicted in British media, a contest between affluent, confident, and quite content South-East England versus the (economically just-getting-by) rest. This election is by far more important than that, for it comes at the end of an era. The two political experiments that have shaped the country in the last thirty five years – Thatcherite Conservatism (under prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s) and Blarite liberalism (the almost 15-years of “New Labour” rule that began with Tony Blair’s coming to power in 1997) – have been discarded by the two largest parties in the country. Thatcherite Conservatism, by its confidence in the wisdom and efficiency of market forces, is perceived by wide sections of the electorate, and by the new grandees of the Conservative party, as unbefitting our age of austerity and economic anxieties, especially given the colossal failures of market forces before the 2008 financial crisis. Blarite liberalism has been besmirched by Tony Blair’s pulling the country into the Iraq quagmire on pretexts and arguments that exposed a descent to the supremacy of spin over substance.
The current leadership of the Conservative and Labour parties are putting forward vastly different economic policies and political choices. At heart, each side is asking the electorate to subscribe to a different understanding of the role of the state in society.
The second dilemma concerns Brexit. Ten days after the election, Britain is expected to commence negotiating with the European Union the terms of their divorce. The two major parties in Britain want to minimise the immediate financial costs of the separation. But save for that, there is a major cleavage in views, actually across the whole political class, concerning the country’s strategy post leaving the EU.
Many observers in Britain, and not only die-hard Brexiteers, believe the country has the economic competitiveness, technological edge, tradition of rule of law, human talent, social institutions, unrivalled level of freedom of thought and expression, and the crucially important qualities of pragmatism and mercantilism, to be able to carve for itself a unique place in the world’s global economy. In this view, Britain has what it takes to sustain, and increase, its prosperity.
Others in the political class (interestingly from different and often opposing political clans) see Brexit as a calamity. In their view, it will expose the erosion Britain has experienced in the quantity and quality of its resources, from the capital accumulated here (that is not transient or marked for real estate investments) to the human talent that’s truly competitive in a world of rising Asia and economically desperate Southern Europe.
This dichotomy leads observers to the third dilemma: What is Britain’s place in tomorrow’s world. Most of those who are optimistic about Britain leaving the EU aspire to a place for the country at the top of a league of middle political and economic powers. Those who consider Brexit a disaster foresee a slow but certain decline. These views lead to different strategies relating to the country’s objectives and dynamics in dealing with major powers such as the US, China, and Russia. This dichotomy also touches on the country’s view of its future, and of itself, a hugely important issue for a nation that, until seven decades ago, was a global empire.
The fourth, and probably the most difficult, dilemma, is what narrative the coming government would put forward in front of its constituencies. Social narratives matter. For a society that will either have to fight to retain its place in the global order, or that will have to accept its inevitable decline into less power, privilege, and expectations, having a narrative that justifies the sacrifices or explains the deteriorating standards of life is crucial.
Britain’s new government has monumental problems to address. Global observers should keep an eye on what the country will be making of itself, not only because of Britain’s political, economic, and military importance, but also because the next few years in Britain will be interesting. Anglophiles like me wish Britain would summon the best of itself to confront these challenges facing it. In a way, reading the history of the British isles in the last few centuries advises one not to bet against Britain.