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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London is not England: the question of equality in the UK

“London is not only England, but to a very large extent Scotland and Wales as well…it is merely to recognize the centralization of the interests of a comparatively small and densely populated country about an urban agglomeration which contains one-fourth of its entire population, and which is at the same time its political, social, intellectual, financial and industrial capital”. (Scarborough, 1934)

London in the 1930s - a bustle familiar to today
London in the 1930s – a bustle familiar to today

Harold Scarborough made the above statement in relation to the superior standard of the London press compared with the rest of Britain yet his general point remains relevant 80 years on. London is so essential to the economic and political status of the UK that even considering to try and disseminate national influence to provincial cities may seem pointless.

This is not to say that areas outside London are unproductive or in any way worthless. It is simply that, even as a capital city and seat of government, London hoards a disproportionate amount of national power.

As such, many people are criticising the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project, which proposes to develop a new rail link between London and Birmingham by 2026 and then on to Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds by 2032. With the costs anticipated to go beyond £50bn, and large swathes of rural heartland set to be obliterated from the map, such criticism is understandable.

What even those not affected directly by HS2 argue is that the improved commuter times and rail links will not actually rebalance the economic and political influence of the country, or create jobs further north, which is what the government hopes will happen.

Protests against HS2 flare-up periodically
Protests against HS2 flare-up periodically

Whilst businesses are unlikely to relocate further north simply because of infrastructural improvements, there could still be an indirect net gain for the provincial cities. Particularly, workers will have the potential to live further away from London and yet still commute to the capital easily. Therefore the economic catchment area of London will expand, raising the values of properties further north and hopefully leading to reinvestment by businessmen in their local communities.

The likelihood of political and trade conferences being held further north – something already being addressed by the main political parties – would also increase.

What must never be forgotten, however, is the already existing cultural and intellectual importance of Britain’s outlying counties. Home to a variety of reputed academic institutions and think-tanks, patronised by a plethora of diverse cultures, locations outside London are essential to the make-up of the UK. To overstate the ‘North-South Divide’ is damaging.

As Scarborough noted in 1934:

Among the provincial newspapers the Manchester Guardian stands head and shoulders above the rest as a national, and indeed an international force…it is, in the best sense of the terms, an intelligent, liberal, reasonable and urbane newspaper, read as carefully by its opponents as by its adherents.

Whilst sceptics might point to the fact that the Manchester Guardian is now a left-leaning, London-headquartered newspaper, it is an example of the historic intellectual and cultural contribution of the provincial cities (just look at Oxbridge for another). Whilst the decline of British manufacturing has diluted their economic contribution, that is not a reason to slander their efforts or precipitate jealous questions about London’s privileges.

The influence of the Oxbridge colleges on London politics cannot be overestimated
The influence of the Oxbridge colleges on London politics cannot be overestimated

The capital may lead but it is only as good as its constituent parts; and many of these parts originate in the so-called provinces.

Source

Scarborough H, ‘The British Press’, Foreign Affairs (April 1934)

Whatever Happened to the Romantic Travelling People?

British Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has called for swifter clampdowns on illegal ‘traveller sites’, responding to an overwhelming anti-traveller public opinion in the UK. ‘Normal’ people cannot build extensions on their property without planning permission, so why should travellers be able to create new homes for themselves wherever they see fit? That is the argument of the government.

The government is fed up with ad hoc traveller settlements
The government is fed up with ad hoc traveller settlements

The Gypsy Council, however, which represents travelling communities, argues that legal provisions for traveller settlements are insufficient and traveller rights are not enshrined in UK law.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that many ‘travellers’ don’t actually travel very much. An illegal community at Dale Farm, Essex, was finally evicted from the land it occupied in 2011 after over a decade of tenancy. The fierce confrontation between residents and policeman helped turn public opinion further against the obdurate travellers.

Perhaps traveller is not an apt term for the people it supposedly defines. It is certainly a far cry from the notion of the free-spirited wanderer of the eighteenth century.

Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Thomas Gray littered their works with natural imagery and participated in marathon walks across Britain’s untamed countryside, professing the moral virtues of those that freed themselves from the sedentary lifestyle. Wordsworth’s most famous poem, Daffodils, is officially titled: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and was inspired by a walk he took with his sister at Ullswater in the Lake District.

Ullswater by J.M.W Turner
Ullswater by J.M.W Turner

The imagery in the poetry of the Romantics cries freedom. Ewan MacColl, writing in the 20th century acknowledged this, with his own take on The Travelling People:

I’m a free born man of the travelling people

Got no fixed abode and no man is my master

Country lanes and byways were always my ways

I never fancied being lumbered

A comment on the constraints of industrial living, MacColl’s lyrics reignited the romantic imagery of the traveller just when such sentiment had all but died out. In a country of increasing urbanisation, the lives of the travellers and the sedentary no longer cohabited so easily. A bias towards city dwellers forced the travellers into urban territory in search of vital services.

It was hard to retain a notion of Romantic freedom as urban slums evolved
It was hard to retain a notion of Romantic freedom as urban slums evolved

Meanwhile, across Europe, anti-Gypsy prejudice rose and widespread persecution continued, even after Hitler’s annihilatory efforts during WWII. The term traveller became used as a convenient cover for Gypsies keen to avoid the prejudices wrought upon their kind.

Simply, there is no easy place for the true traveller in modern society. There are just too many of us. The glorious wanderings and sightseeing of the Romantics could only be sustained by an eccentric few withdrawn from mainstream humanity.

Other so-called travellers despoil their reputation by leaving filth and ruin in their path as they move to the next abode. In paying respect to the land they supposedly cherish, it would be easier to accept their nomadism, however illusory it may be.