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.

Jakarta Sinks as Jokowi Ascends: Will President Desert the Fortress of Batavia?

Jakarta is rapidly sinking and, in theory, soon being displaced as the capital city of Indonesia.  After his re-election as President, Joko Widodo and his cabinet have announced something that has often been mooted.  The Javanese metropolis – the most traffic-congested city on the planet – is no longer suitable as the seat of state.

Some experts believe parts of the city will be submerged by 2050, sinking as it is at up to 15cm every year. Built on marshland, the dubious stability of which is further compromised by the extraction of groundwater for civilian use, Jakarta’s fate looks doomed.

Scenes such as this flood are likely to become increasingly familiar for Jakarta’s citizens

It was the Dutch who set the scene for the leviathan of today.  In 1619 the Dutch East India Company established Batavia on the ruins of Jayakarta, having wrestled it from native control in their bid for a mercantile empire. Batavia became the seat of that empire, elegant Dutch buildings constructed on reclaimed marsh in an engineering feat reminiscent of the homeland.

For more than two centuries this was a purely commercial settlement.  Dutch traders used Batavia as their storehouse and trading hub for the luxurious goods of the Indies, the local population kept in check by force of arms and compliant Chinese immigrants.

City plan of elegant Batavia, 1780

Canals were dug and city walls raised.  But before long the call of the swampy hinterland grew stronger, the Dutch desperate to seize ever more control over the cash crops of the interior.  Batavia expanded and the environment suffered with it.

By the time the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt and was dissolved in 1800, Batavia had many of the characteristics of other colonial cities of the era.  The Dutch East Indies was duly proclaimed and, whilst trade still proliferated, the territory gradually became more of a Dutch settler state.

Dutch-built canal through Batavia

Gas works and street lighting appeared in the mid-19th century, telephone lines and electric trams soon to follow.  All the while the population expanded; native Javanese, Chinese immigrants, Dutch settlers and the mestizo offspring of colonial copulation. Batavia’s numbers had swelled to over 2 million by the start of the 20th century.

The Supreme Court building in colonial Batavia

Many rural Javanese migrated to Batavia as economic opportunities grew. With a rapidly increasing population and an infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with the influx of new settlers, poverty soared.  Unsanitary living conditions closer to the exposed marshland bred plague and other disease, cramped living quarters became the norm and crime rose.  These are issues that persist in modern Jakarta.

Whilst not without their faults, the Dutch colonial authorities did not enact the same sort of civilian co-option and repression seen in other European colonies.  An independence movement emerged in earnest through the 1920s – led by youth groups – which the Dutch did try to suppress.  However, the onset of the Second World War would be required to deliver the death knell to the Dutch Empire and allow subsequent Indonesian independence, by which time the megacity of Jakarta was already well-established.

Japan’s invasion of Indonesia in 1942 (Batavia fell in March) was, like most of its military actions, carried out in the divine name of Hirohito, their Emperor. Whilst the politicians and military leaders exercised real power in Tokyo, they invoked the Emperor’s godliness as a rallying call for their troops and the civilians forced to sacrifice so much at home.

Emperor Hirohito

It was only after Japan’s humiliating defeat at the end of the war that Hirohito publicly renounced his divine status and this week his son, Emperor Akihito, abdicated in an unprecedented public display.

Things have changed in Japan.  The Emperor is revered for his humility not his divine aloofness.

In Jakarta – the capital of the free and independent Indonesian people – the change is one of alarming consistency.  Over-populated, under-resourced, subsiding into oblivion.  The disparate people of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands have often grumbled at the disproportionate influence wielded by the Javanese, resting as it is on the symbolism and economic might of its former Dutch citadel.

President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi

If ever there was an apt moment to change this – and Palangkaraya on Borneo is the favoured location for the new capital – it surely must be now.  Whether Jokowi’s government feel they have the political will at the start of a new five year term to take this prodigious step will soon be determined.