UK Braced for First December Election Since 1923: Momentous Times Indeed

So, for the third time in four years the United Kingdom is set to return to the polls for a general election. As the Brexit debacle rumbles on and the opposition parties refuse both to back the government or offer a sensible way forward the proposed course of the country will, in theory, be left for the ‘people’ to decide.

Momentous times in Westminster

This year’s election is set for the 12th December and it is going to be the first December election since 1923. If the momentous nature of the 1923 election is replicated in 2019, we are in for another few interesting months.

Having assumed the Conservative Party leadership from the ailing Andrew Bonar Law earlier that year, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin gambled the Tory majority in parliament by calling an early election, believing he needed a proper mandate to govern.

Whilst the Conservatives remained the largest party in the House of Commons, they did not secure an outright majority in 1923, with the ascendant Labour Party and the Liberals of Herbert Asquith both taking a substantial share of the vote (in fact this was the last time three parties all secured more than 100 seats in a British election).

As today, the sensitive topic of immigration was on the minds of politicians in 1923

With a hung parliament called, it was the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald that formed its first ever government, a minority government tacitly supported by Asquith’s Liberals. So convinced was Asquith that Labour would fail miserably that he took the gamble of backing them in the hope that it would revive the fortunes of his flagging party.

The potential for another hung parliament in 2019 cannot be discounted, although the early odds from the bookies favour a Conservative majority. It is almost impossible to describe how disastrous and frustrating an outcome a hung parliament would be for Britain, let alone the possibility of a minority government. With the Brexit impasse seemingly unbreachable with parliament’s current make-up, the very least the country needs is an outright majority and a strong whip to batter through the government’s legislation.

Early 1920s Britain was a turbulent place. Recovery from the First World War was slow and painful, the economy was struggling and radical politics lingered in the polluted air. Uncertainty in government added to the discontent and unease of a nascent democracy. MacDonald’s reign lasted less than a year; he was ousted after a vote of no confidence triggered yet another election (in October 1924) which Baldwin duly won with a majority. The latter would stay in office for the next five years.

Ramsay MacDonald: a far more competent politician than his current successor

Undoubtedly the prospect of another five years of Boris Johnson at the helm is likely to terrify large swathes of the populace, even though he has a more clear vision of Britain’s break with the EU than any of his contemporaries. Johnson is divisive, both amongst the public and his own party, prone to gaffes and insensitive comments not befitting of a national leader. Yet his main opponent is characterised by a lack of principle, inconsistent policy pronouncements and a radical streak that will never have broad appeal.

Jeremy Corbyn is threatening to destroy the modern Labour Party, perhaps unsurprising given that he is somewhat of a throwback to its more radical days. It could be argued that Labour’s likely suffering in the December election is a positive development, re-opening the door for the Liberal Democrats and offering more fringe parties such as the Greens and Brexit an opportunity to create a more pluralistic political map in the UK.

Alternatively the Labour malaise under Corbyn could prompt the resurrection of former heavyweights, such as the party’s modern founder Tony Blair or David Milliband, whose failure to secure victory in the 2010 leadership contest against his brother Ed was a huge turning point in UK politics.

Corbyn’s failure to handle the anti-semitism scandal in his party has further discredited him among some traditional Labour supporters

Labour used their defeat in 1924 to rebuild and get greater experience of being in opposition, of challenging the government, of observing political practice and tactics. When MacDonald won the 1929 election he was ready to rule, serving as Prime Minister until 1935 both as leader of Labour and as part of a historic National Coalition that steered Britain through the Great Depression.

For Labour there can be no such resurgence under Corbyn, whose personality and politics are redundant. They should have ditched him long ago, though a lack of obvious alternatives has certainly hampered their cause. With Labour dead in Scotland and many former strongholds in the north of England pray to incursion by the Brexit Party, December 2019 could be a chastening moment in the party’s timeline.

Yet even with a mere five week campaigning period a lot can change. Boris Johnson is a master of self-destruction, media scrutiny will be as intense as ever and expect Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson (amongst others) to throw frequent, heavy punches at the political big shots.

Make no mistake, Britain’s situation is as critical as the early 1920s with a future more than a little uncertain. The time has come for a decisive step which, regardless of how it pans out, needs the full backing of Parliament.

MacDonald leading a National Coalition in the 1930s: could we see a similar government in 2020?

As for the people…all they can do is exercise their vote. After that it is up to the politicians to finally put into practice the democratic voice of the electorate, rather than engage in the sort of political point-scoring that has completely discredited the British parliamentary system.

South America Regressing? A Rampant Revival Checked by Rampant Mismanagement

In the century and a half after their independence, the nations of South America were typically some of the most repressive and least stable in the world. Military dictatorships and continental wars abounded as the nascent nations squabbled for supremacy in the post-Spanish era.

The Siege of Paysandu during the Uruguayan War of 1864-65, one of many 19th century conflicts that embroiled continental powers in South America

The twentieth century brought additional internal challenges, including a growing wealth gap, drug cartels and bloody insurgencies. It took until the end of the century for democracy and a relatively fair social contract between governments and people to take hold in most countries on the continent, including the largest and most powerful; Brazil.

In more recent years, progress has been impressive. Regional economies have grown apace, millions have been lifted from poverty, drug gangs have been confronted and insurgencies quelled. Democracy has generally taken root, with elections largely free and fair. After decades of uncomplimentary news headlines and negative attention from the international media, South America went rather quiet. Its members were becoming ‘normal’ nations, or so it seemed.

Reading the news over the past few weeks, one would be hard-pressed to remember this impressive, if recent, progression.

In Peru – the epicentre of the Inca Empire whose conquest by Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores ushered in Spanish rule on the continent – a political crisis has been sparked by the president’s dissolution of congress. Supporters on both sides of the political aisle have taken to the street in what have been, so far, peaceful protests. But the episode threatens to derail the recovery of a nation that has overcome a succession of scandal-hit leaders and largely defeated the Maoist Shining Path rebel group that caused devastation countrywide from the late 1960s.

In Chile, violent protests against economic inequality and political stagnation have left at least fifteen people dead in the past week. The Chilean success story in becoming one of the most important economies in the Americas having struggled free of the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet is little reported. Yet propelled by vast copper reserves and other natural resources, Chile has known only stability in recent years. That Pinochet’s ascendancy was precipitated by the CIA-backed overthrow of leftist Salvador Allende in 1973 makes this rapid renaissance all the more astonishing, and worth protecting.

For years Augusto Pinochet had American backing, yet he brutalised the Chilean people

Bolivia too is reeling from protests after the controversial re-election of indigenous president Evo Morales. The first indigenous leader on the continent, his rise to the top was greeted with euphoria across the world and consistent economic growth has helped alleviate poverty. Unfortunately his decision to change the constitution to extend his rule, and his failure to manage inter-ethnic conflict raises the prospect of bloody violence.

Former coca leaf farmer Evo Morales is seeking a fourth consecutive term having amended the constitution

Violent clashes between protesters and the security forces have also plagued Ecuador, with parts of the capital Quito in flames. Precipitated by the removal of generous fuel subsidies because of IMF-demanded austerity measures, it threatens to unravel a delicate status quo that has held in recent years after decades of coups and counter-coups.

To the north, Colombia was seemingly emerging from the era of narco-politics embodied by the impunity of Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. What is more, a peace agreement with the FARC, an extremist left-wing insurgent group with a hand in the drugs trade, looked set to put the Colombians on the path to long-term peace. Yet the deal with the FARC is threatening to unravel, with several former rebels threatening to take up arms once more. The government, meanwhile, has become distracted by a refugee crisis caused by the debilitating situation in neighbouring Venezuela.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have spilled into Colombia, fleeing the humanitarian crisis in their homeland

And what of Venezuela? It has long been seen as a basket case, even in an era of South American improvement. Now, the country is virtually in ruin. President Nicolas Maduro refuses to cede power and appears perfectly prepared to starve and bully his people into submission to ensure that he does not have to. He is the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chavez, the left-wing populist and demagogue who was often seen as a scourge of the Western world. Yet despite all of Chavez’ flaws, his period of rule saw millions released from poverty by petro-dollars, whilst his ‘poor guy’ image endeared him to those fed-up of being trampled on by a disconnected oligarchy.

Even the continent’s two largest powers are reeling. In Brazil – which has seen an amazing transformation into one of the world’s biggest economies after decades of military rule – the political class has been completely discredited because of massive corruption scandals. Rulers have lined their pockets at the expense of a growing impoverished class, whose destitute favelas famously sit side-by-side with the gleaming skyscrapers of the rich. Running on a populist ticket, Jair Bolsonaro won the last presidential election. Setting himself up as a Brazilian Donald Trump, he refuses to negotiate with anyone that disagrees with him and has shown complete disdain for the plight of the Amazon Rainforest, his nation’s greatest treasure.

Argentina, meanwhile, has undergone a similarly remarkable transformation from a junta-ruled state where dissidents simply ‘disappeared’, to a vibrant economy and democracy. This revolution has been under threat in recent years, again stemming from political corruption and massive economic mismanagement, finally resulting in the IMF’s biggest ever bailout, a staggering $57 billion. Things were supposed to be different under another populist president, Mauricio Macri. Alas, his performance has been so disappointing that it seems to have paved a returned to power for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the crooked former president. 

Put simply, the South American nations have been mismanaged and abused in recent years and the people have had enough. However remarkable their rise since the dark days of military rule and impoverishment, the problems of the developed world have been ignored. It would be just as easy for the continent to regress towards a series of juntas and dictatorships as it was miraculous for it to have escaped such a state.

With global attention trained elsewhere, we might not even notice when that sad time has arrived once again. If international institutions refuse to offer support to decaying regimes, there is no guarantee that positive regeneration will come from within.