Never was there a parliamentary election in the UK more consequential and important than the one that just concluded a fortnight ago. It was supposed to be about Britain searching for her identity, her place in the world. Instead, it was just another referendum on Brexit, as was expected.
After all the political theatre around Theresa May’s sudden exit, Boris Johnson being anointed the head of the Conservative Party which he took to mean the right to prorogue Parliament and got rapped on the wrist by the Supreme Court, the wrangling over the Brexit deal and finally having to call elections on the 12th of December, this was surely going to be a Christmas to remember. Much drama had taken place in the past couple of months, but one has to say that compared to Theresa May’s indecisiveness and glacial paced Brexit, this was more like a rush to the exits.
British businesses have had a lot to fear for, as I have already written on the Brexit uncertainty that was haunting them and the election result must come as some comfort to them, as it does reduce the uncertainty somewhat. Not a lot, though, since Boris and team have yet to decide on the most contentious issues before Britain: what type of Brexit and what kind of transition to a new, reset relationship with the EU. It would be fair to say that all this is likely to take another couple of years, before Britain can say goodbye to the EU.
However, that doesn’t seem to be what Boris Johnson has in mind. His Brexit Bill passed in Parliament with a large majority and it appears to suggest leaving the EU by December 2020, come what may. Boris Johnson has repeatedly said that they will not be asking for an extension of the transition period beyond that date. Meanwhile SNP’s strong performance in these elections has meant that Scotland’s calls for a second referendum to leave the UK have become louder. Britain’s future looks increasingly perilous.
Through all the soul-searching that Britain was supposed to be doing, one fact defines this country and this election: a country divided right down the middle. Polarised and tired, Britain went to the hustings, trying to get this Brexit over and done with. “Get Brexit Done” was all the sloganeering that was needed to push Britain’s undecided voters through the gates.
For the past four years one had been reading about the faultlines dividing Britain, across city and country, globalized London elites and country folks, the ones with cushy jobs and the ones left behind. It sounded all too familiar at the 2016 US election as well, when the country elected Trump as President. There was something about 2016, then.
No, there was something about politicians on both sides of the pond. They sensed the mood was just right for them to whip up anti-globalisation and anti-immigration sentiments, in order to wield power. Not just that, they even support and cheer each other on from both sides of the Atlantic. They and their grandiose visions of a glorious future, of making their countries great again, drove them to ride the wave of populism. It is another matter that three years later, the US is not any greater, but a weaker, more diminished power, economically, politically and militarily.
I suspect the same will happen to the UK. I had already written that Brexit (with or without a deal) will be a disaster for the UK economy, but this time I would like to focus on a different dimension. The faultline of age. Britain seems most divided politically and economically by age, as much as by remain and leave, or political persuasion. In fact, as polls suggest, people voted remain and leave or Labour and Conservative, based on their age. It was the single largest determinant of which way people leaned and the facts are rather stark on this.
In a country with an ageing demographic, there are more old people than young; in 2018, the UK electorate shrank by 372,000 (0.8%) owing to more old age deaths than 18-year-olds joining the electorate. Add to this the fact that the old are more likely to vote than the young, and you have an election with a much higher participation rate among older age groups. It is also likely that London could have skewed the election results, owing to a higher concentration of younger voters. I searched the internet for exact numbers of actual voters by age in this 2019 election and couldn’t find any readily available data; perhaps it hasn’t been analysed and collated yet.
However, there are enough polls to give us a fairly good picture of how the young and old intend to vote and their education levels. It turns out, once again much like America, that older, less educated, country folk would vote for the Tories and the younger, better educated city folks vote for the Whigs. As many as 38% of 18-24 year-olds and 25-29 year olds would vote for Labour, compared to 45% of 60-69 year olds and 58% of over 70 year olds who would vote Conservative.
Of course, this election was all about Brexit. And the age-wise preferences also tended to spill over into the Remain/Leave area. In polls, it has been observed that the young would prefer to remain in the EU, while the old want out. This article from BBC says a Brexit poll before the elections showed that the 2016 Brexit Referendum results had reversed by 2018. It has also been noted that the young believe that immigration actually enriches Britain, rather than threatens it, while the older folks think otherwise. A study by the Pew Research Centre seems to confirm that UK attitudes on immigration are not all that different from those in the EU.
This, to me, presents the real dilemma facing Britain. Not remain or leave, not globalized or local, not city or country. Those are all manifestations of how Britain is shaping as a society. The question Britain’s leaders will have to ask themselves is where are they leading their country. Into the future where their younger generations will take them, or shrink into their past (worse, a glorified idea of their past)?
The latter seems more likely now that Britain has decided to leave its youth in the lurch. Outnumbered and outvoted, the young will now tend to vote with their feet. Emigration is a real possibility. It also means that Britain will either get swamped by America that is already dangling the promise of a juicy FTA (free trade agreement) or it will drift and muddle along, unmoored, into oblivion. I had previously written about both these scenarios. Which is why it is so important for Boris Johnson and team to get this right, to take the time to “get Brexit done” right.
Instead of rushing into a no-deal Brexit, or a hard Brexit, just because he has to meet a deadline, he needs to think hard about his country’s future. Where would Britain be without its immigrants, without its young workers, without its educated and talented workforce? And if it’s not a country for young, educated and talented people, where is Britain headed? Conversely, if it is to be a magnet for young, skilled people across industries, what does Britain have to offer them?
Those are the hard choices and questions facing Britain, even as economic uncertainty is likely to continue for a few more years. And it isn’t about trade and exports alone. As the country ages faster, its economic and social realities will change: higher healthcare and pension costs are only to be expected. According to this FT article from last year, Britain’s pension funding gap shot up by 1 trillion pounds in just five years. Britain will need its younger workforce to pay their taxes and their pension contributions, so that the old can be comfortably looked after.
Besides, there are issues like climate change, chlorinated chicken and the NHS that the British care deeply about, especially the young. And for all the Thatcher years of neo-liberal policies that Britain followed – often in tandem with Reagan’s America – the country remains at heart, a social democratic society. Poles apart from the US. It amused me to hear Nigel Farage say to Fareed Zakaria on an edition of GPS just before elections, that “the kids of Britain don’t look to Europe for culture, they look to America.” He couldn’t be farther from the truth and more out of touch with his people. Little wonder, Brexit Party didn’t win a single seat in the 2019 UK elections.
If what he means by culture is American fast food, music and movies, he might have a point. Fortunately for us, culture goes much deeper than that, culture is slow to change. Then again, it is never a politician’s instinct to think long-term, is it?
The featured photograph at the start of this article is by Christian Battaglia on Unsplash and features visitors at the Tate Modern Gallery looking out to St Paul’s Cathedral, which I thought captured the idea of Britain looking back at its past really well.