A Very English Coup

by Mark Rowantree

The starting gun for the 2017 General Election was fired by the Prime Minister on Tuesday 16 April. Presaging the style that would come to identify the entire Conservative campaign to follow, her announcement was not made to a packed House of Commons, but delivered in her flat clipped Home Counties tones from a podium hastily set up outside 10 Downing Street to the serried ranks of an overwhelmingly sympathetic and uncritical British media.

“We need a General Election and we need one now,” May claimed; since not doing so would mean “that division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit”. The Fixed Term Parliament which was introduced, amidst much fanfare by a Conservative-Liberal Democratic Government, of which the self-same Theresa May was a prominent member, would be circumvented by the simple expedient of a Parliamentary motion calling for a dissolution.

The Prime Minister had previously gone on record as saying she wouldn’t be calling a General Election before one was due in three years’ time. So, what caused this apparent volte-face?

Right away her apparent justification is completely risible and does not stand up to the most cursory scrutiny. As evidenced by criticisms from notable academics like Michael Dougan of Liverpool University’s EU Law Centre. Her claims of apparent obstruction in Parliament are complete nonsense; as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition have in the main supported her for reasons best known to Labour ‘strategists’ in every Brexit motion put before the Commons. Indeed, the Labour Party or the clear majority of them were so keen to be supporting “the voice of the people” that they trooped through the lobbies to support the Tory dissolution motion the following day.

Amongst the Labour dissenters was Dennis Skinner, which should perhaps have raised concerns on the left of the party about their direction of travel. As someone who remembers the events of 1979 and the fall of the Callaghan Government, I find it difficult to understand how the much-reduced Labour Party were oblivious to the parallels with the “turkeys voting for Christmas” jibe aimed at the SNP by Callaghan himself. Furthermore, it suggests that the accusation oft times hurled by Scottish Labour that it was the SNP who were responsible for Thatcher was a slogan and not a conviction deeply held or perhaps more importantly a lesson harshly learned.

Returning to the main theme of the piece; if opposition in the Commons wasn’t the issue, was that renowned group of Bolsheviks in the ‘other place’ hellbent on overturning the expressed wishes of the British people? Apparently not really, since the Brexit Bill itself was eventually passed with little fuss. Finally, what Mrs May apparently objected to vis-à-vis the entire Opposition in the Houses of Parliament is that to varying degrees they dared to disagree with her Government. Quite an extraordinary position to hold in what is supposedly a mature liberal democracy; one which, nonetheless,  probably reveals more of her approach to government and politics than the inanities above.

I believe that the General Election was called for two reasons: Mrs May has realised that her much vaunted new free trade agreement with the EU was in fact a chimera and it seems to me highly likely that the UK will eventually leave the EU with no or a minimal transition agreement in place. Furthermore, Mrs May seems to be wilfully ignorant of the actual consequences of initiating Article 50 and the likely economic and social dislocation that will inevitably flow from it. To all but the most rabid Brexiteer such an outcome would have been unthinkable as little as twelve months ago. Even the most optimistic economic forecast would be likely to predict a slight downturn in economic activity.

Of course, the Conservative Party prizes its – in my view – richly undeserved reputation for economic acumen and thus wouldn’t dream of entering an election; if it could help it, if the economic omens looked ill. Indeed, as the examples of Gordon Brown and James Callaghan show, the UK electorate tends to show a singular lack of understanding towards any party in power at a time of economic change, far less crisis. Thus, this to my mind is the real reason for this election: to get safely returned to power before the Brexit shit hits the fan.

Assisting May in her calculus, was undoubtedly the raft of opinion polls published over the Easter weekend: showing the Tories holding a lead over Labour of around 20 per cent. Considering possible future political and economic tumult it was too good an opportunity for virtually any British Prime Minister, and May duly bit the electoral bullet.

Other factors, such as the possibility of criminal charges been levelled against Tory MPs and/or election agents may well have played a part in Mrs May’s decision. Personally, I rather doubt that, as in the UK that’s just simply not how the political game operates. The British Establishment tends not make a good fist of self-regulation (think Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday and Orgreave) and there is probably no more establishment organisation than the Conservative and Unionist Party. Indeed, it could be argued that to a considerable degree they wrote the establishment script.

So, outside the realms of anyone unfamiliar with the law I do not think that there was ever any realistic chance of criminal proceedings, far less convictions. Therefore, I would argue that deliberations on this matter played a peripheral role, if any in Prime Ministerial decision making.

What should be apparent to all but a ‘moderate’ Labour MP is that under the guise of securing a “strong and stable” Brexit May and her acolytes have effected what to all intents and purposes is a coup within her own party to deliver the coup de grâce to the remnants of the post-war settlement and to shift British political discourse further in a reactionary direction towards that of a visceral English nationalist paradigm in England and a frankly Loyalist one in Scotland.

It surely is more than a mere coincidence that Mrs May was the first foreign figure of note to visit the Trump White House or that she offered him the singular honour of a State Visit to the UK. An honour that perhaps more sage voices within Whitehall would likely have advised to be withheld until a reasonable appraisal can be made of President Trump’s role as “leader of the free world.”

Of course, any mention of Trump is inevitably going to raise concerns about the phenomenon now known universally as “fake news.” This in turn will lead onto what I feel will be for future generations the defining feature of this election (leaving aside for a time the legendary incompetence of historians to pontificate about future events!); the overtly pro-Tory tone of most of the UK media. This is nothing new in and of itsel. What marks this election campaign is, as Paul Mason said of 2014, that the BBC, ITV and Sky are “in full propaganda mode” to advance the interests of the Conservative Party and damage the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn in England and Wales and the SNP in Scotland.

Never, in my lifetime during a General Election, have I witnessed the entire UK media adroitly fit into Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of the media. More alarmingly, if the opinion polls are to be believed, its message seems to be prevailing.

The only recourse that we on the left have now is to put away all tribal division and, tough as that may seem to many, it means voting SNP or Green in Scotland and Labour or Green anywhere else. Make no mistake, this election amounts to an existential one for the left throughout the UK; we either rise to the challenge or accept the dawn of a new age of reaction.

Mark Rowantree is an MA graduate of the University of Glasgow. His master’s was in the Social Sciences; Honours Economic and Social History. He has researched the History of Scottish Deindustrialisation, Scotland since 1914, Work and Labour in Britain since 1940, and the Political Economy of Britain since the 1970s. We are delighted to have him on the Butterfly Rebellion.

The Butterfly Rebellion
Mark Rowantree
Glasgow, Scotland