Saturday, May 6, 2017

Brexit, nationalism and fall of UKIP: a new realignment in British politics?

The results from the local elections have told us a number of things, but perhaps the most important one is that the decision for Theresa May to turn the Conservative Party rhetorically rightwards into UKIP territory has paid off.

That this was a coldly-calculated political decision there can be no mistake; the signs were there in the fiery rhetoric of the Conservative Party conference last autumn. Once the vote had happened, Theresa May decided that she was going to "own" Brexit, with the hope that UKIP supporters would therefore transfer to the Tories, giving them an unassailable advantage over Labour. And this is infact what has happened. On top of the weakness of the Labour leadership itself, the effect of the UKIP vote effectively transferring to the Tories means we are in a whole new political ball park (more on that below).
For Labour, this is another mortal blow. After the Scottish referendum effectively killed off their party's historic dominance north of the border, the EU referendum has brought another blow all across England, leaving them with few "heartlands" left. If anything, Labour has come to represent parts of what its critics call the "urban liberal demographic" (what has also been called "Remainia" as opposed to Tory-held "Brexitland"); however this leaves them fighting over a segment of the vote also divided between the Libdems and the Greens, with the Conservatives now seen as fully representing the interests of "Brexit". In this way, the demographic split between these two ("Remainia" and "Brexitland") could as easily be seen as an updating of the classic conflict that pits "city versus country" and "rich versus poor".

How The UK became like Turkey

Political parallels are always inexact, but nonetheless can be useful. The author has been an observer of Turkish affairs for more than ten years, after having lived there in the past.
Before the rise of the Islamist AKP fifteen years ago, religion was kept strictly out of politics, following in the Turkish republic's secular constitution and traditions. Apart from a brief period in the 1990s, religious parties in Turkey had never been able to achieve power, or anything close to it: simply, the issue of religion was in effect politically off the table.
Turkish politics had always traditionally been dominated by either the CHP (the vaguely left-leaning party of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk"), or by a right-leaning party (these changed over the years, but the politics was generally consistently conservative). This left no real room for religion to enter the debate.
This changed when there was an inflationary, financial crisis in Turkey in the late 1990s, which ended up tarring the main secular parties with the charge of corruption and incompetence. The AKP, a newly-established Islamist party, took advantage of this by appealing to moderates (both secularists as well as Islamists) who wanted a change. They also played down their Islamist credentials.

We now know what happened afterwards: Turkey has been ruled by the AKP for the last fourteen years, and looks destined to be ruled by it for the foreseeable future. Why? Because by the introduction of a new dynamic into the mix, politics became unrecognisable: the "old" secular parties became old hat, and their natural electoral base became sidelined by the agenda of the more dominant Islamists. Because the AKP were the only party seen to represent the interests of Islamists (i.e. they "owned" the brand), it meant the AKP could rely on a consistent "base" that would vote for it regardless of how extreme it appeared to the rest of society, or to outsiders. The rhetoric has become more and more extreme as the tendencies of the government became gradually more openly authoritarian. Meanwhile the opposing secular parties remained divided and impotent. The vote for the secular parties have thus been restricted to the relatively-affluent, more liberal urban areas of the country; like in the UK, where the Labour/ LibDem vote has remained more robust in places like London and Manchester, while it has retreated everywhere else.

"Brexit" seems to have had a similarly-radical effect on British politics as what happened to Turkey. The issue of "Europe" had never been something high up in the minds of the British electorate. This began to change slowly, and then seemed to suddenly be taken advantage of by UKIP after the years of the financial crisis and the first difficult years of the Coalition government.
It was the fateful decision of David Cameron to go ahead with the EU referendum that set the ball rolling, to destroy his career.
By opening the issue of "Europe" to the electorate (in effect, "confecting" a political fissure from a previously-unchallenged orthodoxy), it gave all the advantage to UKIP and the Eurosceptics in Cameron's own party.  Like how secularism in Turkey was a previously unchallenged statement of fact, then turned on its head by the AKP, the issue of Britain's position in Europe had been a long-unchallenged fact, turned on its head by the decision to have the EU referendum. This gave an in-built advantage to the "Leave" camp: whatever the problem was, "Europe" was the cause of it. This was how they managed to turn the EU referendum into a vote about everything that people were unhappy with - whatever you were unhappy with, it was Europe's fault! In the febrile atmosphere of Britain in the years following the financial crisis, like in the years of Turkey's inflationary crisis that preceded the AKP's success, it gave an advantage to "outsider" movements, and an excuse for people to vote against the political orthodoxy.

The comparison with Turkey here becomes muddied, because unlike in Turkey where the AKP took advantage of the Islamist vote, UKIP were not the ultimate beneficiaries of winning the EU referendum.
And this shows us something of the chameleon-like nature of the Conservative Party, which never misses an opportunity to cement power. By Theresa May's calculated decision to fully embrace the cause that was UKIP's raison d-etre, she had effectively turned the Conservative Party into UKIP. UKIP no longer had any reason to exist.

In this way, by re-aligning the Conservative Party (i.e. the party of "the establishment") to quickly take full control of this new "fissure" in British politics, it has left the other parties looking out-of-date and moribund. In the same way that the secular parties in Turkey now represent a segment of the electorate that can never have a realistic chance of power, the same could be said of the "pro-European" parties in the UK, at least for the foreseeable future.

Both Turkish politics, and now British politics, have experienced events that have seismically-changed the electoral landscape, but the beneficiaries have been different in each case. In Turkey, the rise of Islamism was partly due to an inflationary crisis that damaged its traditional parties, which have not been able to recover since. In Britain, however, the Conservative Party, after initially being a "victim" of UKIP over the issue of Europe, then took advantage of its own fractured situation to copy UKIP's agenda post facto, leaving it as the "master" of the new political reality. As with the AKP, "moderates" in the Conservative Party had nowhere else to go politically, even as its rhetoric became more and more extreme. The Conservatives now have both the nationalist votes from UKIP over "Brexit", as well as the tribal loyalty of their traditional party supporters, who could never bring themselves to leave: the "moderates" are effectively hostages to the extremist agenda that has been thrust upon them by an opportunistic few.

We have already seen a sign of things to come, from Theresa May's hostile and paranoid rhetoric towards Europe, and her authoritarian tendencies at home, to see where this kind of ugly nationalism could take Britain in the coming years.

This is the other similarity that The UK now shares with Turkey: that Theresa May appears to be copying the nationalist authoritarian rhetoric of Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the same way that Erdogan's regime has brought about a new sense of Turkish identity that has been called "Neo-Ottomanism", it appears that Theresa May's strategy is turn the country's self-imposed isolation from Europe into some kind of "renaissance".
This would have Britain (or more exactly, England) hark back to a time when Britain was isolated against a hostile Continent, reviving the jingoism of the Second World War. The difference now, of course, is that Britain's isolation is a self-inflicted wound, when the rest of Europe sees us as the "bad guy" by wanting to wrangle our way out of previously-made financial commitments, and wanting to have our cake and eat it. In other words, in some quarters Britain is now seen as something of a bad joke. At the same time, much of the rest of the world sees Britain's choice on "Brexit" as an opportunity to take advantage of its self-inflicted weakness. Meanwhile, the self-inflicted hardships to come can be blamed on "Europe" and scheming outsiders; and like other authoritarian leaders, using a cult of national solidarity and sacrifice (in Britain's case, what's called "the spirit of the Blitz") at home to quell opposition.
Like Erdogan, May and her supporters paper over this weakness with a resurgence in rose-tinted nationalism, which turns to hostile paranoia when concerning outsiders and opponents at home. Erdogan's foreign policy engagement with the Middle East (a re-kindling of historic Ottoman ties) may be seen as a potential inspiration for Theresa May's administration to want to re-kindle former Imperial attachments.
In this way, "Brexit" can be seen by the government as Britain's way to find its own form of "Neo-Ottomanism" from the wreckage of its Imperial influence.

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