May Ignores the Folly of Heath to Call Snap General Election: can Labour respond?

So, Theresa May has called for a snap general election for the UK to be held on the 8th June 2017. The short-notice announcement this morning came somewhat as a surprise given that May has consistently claimed that she would not call an early election and thereby add further chaos to the Brexit process.

May during her announcement outside 10 Downing Street

Logically, however, this particular political u-turn makes sense. Not only is a handsome Conservative Party victory likely given the disarray of the Labour Party but a resounding majority would give May the mandate she needs to continue to push towards a hard Brexit. Additionally, as BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg notes:

Dealing day-to-day with a small majority has given Conservative backbenchers significant power to force the government to back down on a variety of issues.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Opposition leader, has welcomed the announcement and therefore it is likely that Parliament will approve the decision to take the British electorate to the polls once more.

Whilst current projections suggest a Tory landslide, May should be wary of recent history. The last snap election called by a Conservative Prime Minister was in February 1974 when Edward Heath sought a new majority as an affirmation of his policy towards the Miners’ Strike.

Heath, confident of victory, did not bargain on other factors coming into play during the election campaign. A stagnating economy and continuing inflation led to a loss of government credibility, whilst the decision to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union, alienated people both within and outside the Conservative Party. Tory stalwart Enoch Powell – he of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech – went as far as to campaign against Heath.

Heath believed that a majority of voters shared his view on the Miners’ Strike

Compounding matters, the Ulster Unionists, traditional Tory supporters, abandoned the party after the Sunningdale Agreement established a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.

Revelations during the election campaign that the striking mineworkers were receiving far less money than the government and its National Coal Board allies made out condemned Heath to failure. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won by a margin of 4 seats (despite losing the popular vote), forcing the first hung parliament post-WWII.

Harold Wilson returned as PM after a surprise victory

An inability to form a coalition with the Liberals, or to regain the trust of the Ulster Unionists, led to Heath’s resignation and a minority Labour government.

In October 1974 a second snap election of the year was held at the behest of Wilson who managed to secure the majority (albeit narrow) that he needed to govern effectively. From a position of relative strength at the beginning of the year, Heath and the Tories had fallen flat on their face in a self-imposed disintegration. It would take the arrival of the indomitable Margaret Thatcher to reinvigorate the party.

May should take heed, therefore, that victory is far from certain. All sorts of shenanigans take place during election season and with 24-hour media scrutiny, the next scandal is only just around the corner. With an electorate tiring of the political elite and their partisan and selfish ways, the Prime Minister may yet be punished for what could be interpreted as an arrogant and unnecessary move.

Whilst Brexit will dominate the debates and newsfeeds over the coming months, the state of economic recovery, the education system, immigration and the NHS will all be an important part of the maelstrom of discussion. The Tories have weaknesses on all of these issues which even a factionalised Labour Party may be able to exploit.

Certainly do not expect the next two months to be quiet. Heath and Wilson will no doubt be enjoying a wry smile as their successors join battle once again.

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War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.

The Wat Tyler of his time? Farage ascends but history serves him an important warning

So after a prolonged, divisive, fraudulent campaign, the British people have confirmed their gullibility by voting to ‘Leave’ the European Union. Heavily influenced by a baying tabloid press and their own xenophobia, 52% of the population has ignored reason and morality to serve a devastating blow to the continent as a whole.

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The disgraceful lies of the ‘Leave’ campaigners – particularly their spurious claims of £350m savings from the EU budget being re-diverted to the NHS – and the tabloids’ predatory insinuations about the potential for mass immigration should the UK retain the status quo, have proved significant. They were too strong for the ‘Remain’ campaign and its divided Tory leadership, the pitiful showing of Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour party’s misreading of their own supporters. Despite an overwhelming majority in Scotland and London favouring continued EU membership, most of the rest of the UK decided that it was time that Britain cut ties with its European neighbours. Even Wales, a former Labour heartland reliant on extremely generous subsidies from Westminster, voted ‘Leave’.

Of course throughout the entire build-up to the referendum, one figure stood above all: Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, a man compared by some political commentators as the ‘Wat Tyler of our time’.

Farage: an ordinary, decent bloke
Farage: an ordinary, decent bloke

On first glance it might seem odd to compare the back-stabbing, vituperative, unrepentant Farage to the 14th century leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. But a closer look reveals some intriguing similarities.

Like Tyler, Farage hails from Kent and has constantly been at pains to point out his status as an ‘ordinary, decent’ bloke, concerned only with the ‘true desires’ of ‘ordinary, decent people’. Tyler, too, was a self-styled man of the people, his obscure origins clouding just how ‘ordinary’ he actually was. Nevertheless, both men can undoubtedly be seen as political opportunists.

The Peasants’ Revolt ostensibly arose as an opposition to King Richard II’s implementation of a poll tax. Whilst certainly an extremely unpopular measure, the grievances of the peasantry were at this point in history many. Following the devastating Black Death of the mid-century, the economic conditions of an underpopulated realm were dire. Furthermore, their social and political prospects were non-existent, the elitist royal state more reminiscent of an oligarchy by the day, the pre-Magna Carta times relived even for those of ‘lesser’ noble blood.

The Black Death ravaged 14th century England, as it did much of Europe
The Black Death ravaged 14th century England, as it did much of Europe

Tyler united his peasant forces around the issue of the poll tax, even if this was just one facet of a class-wide dissatisfaction. Similarly, Farage almost exclusively campaigned on a single issue; immigration. This was a ruthless platform – accompanied by Nazi-style propaganda posters depicting an apocalyptic post-Turkey accession to the EU – harnessing the powers and immorality of the popular mass media to forge a xenophobic unity across vast swathes of the country.

However ‘inspirational’ such leaders at first appear to be, long-term success is far from guaranteed when trying to control a popular mass movement anathema to the ruling elite. And however many MPs, Lords and Ladies voted ‘Leave’, the vast majority of both Houses of Parliament will be infuriated by the results of the referendum.

Wat Tyler overreached himself in 1381, having been granted an unprecedented audience with King Richard at Smithfield. Chroniclers regale how Tyler spoke to the king with ill-disguised contempt, addressing him in overly-familiar terms that would have been heretical to his 14th century contemporaries. This after a panicked King Richard had agreed to concessions for the peasantry.

After being called ‘the greatest thief and robber in all Kent’ by a royal aide, Tyler went on the rampage, which included an attempt to stab the Mayor of London. In the ensuing melee Tyler was wounded, although he managed to briefly escape to a hospital for the poor on the outskirts of the city. His respite was brief, however, the damage already done. Dragged back to the Smithfield by the Mayor and his supporters, Tyler was publicly decapitated, his head stuck on spike and displayed on London Bridge as a warning to the rebels. King Richard reneged on his promises and the peasants left empty-handed to return to their lives of toil.

Wat Tyler meets his death at Smithfield
Wat Tyler meets his death at Smithfield

Farage is unlikely to meet such a grisly fate, although one would suspect that there are no shortage of people who would revel in seeing his grinning mug impaled upon a famous London landmark. However, to reach the top, Farage has alienated the majority of his past supporters and made promises to the electorate that he is either not in the position to keep, or were downright lies in the first place.

When Brexit takes affect and Britain’s economy goes into nosedive, when immigration continues at a steady pace and multiculturalism takes hold even more firmly in British cities, what then? Who will the people that voted ‘Leave’ blame for the false promises and the sugar-coated apparitions of a non-existent future?

Farage’s finest hour may belatedly have arrived but like Tyler it is not destined to last for time immemorial. The elite forces who steer the country will soon end their bickering and rally to preserve the status quo. Brexit may yet happen but the admittedly unforeseeable consequences are unlikely to satiate the demands of a rebellious, ill-informed electorate.

The Mayor of London’s sword is being readied, the spike atop London Bridge receiving a first coat of wax in anticipation of the coming storm. What remains to be seen is how Farage negotiates his own exit because, however convincing this master orator can be, his fall will duly come.

As with Tyler, his will be a legacy of futile rebellion.