Citizens of the UK and Northern Ireland are headed back to the polls. Is it really a surprise that a snap election has been called?
When the Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, announced on April 18 her intentions for a snap election to be held on June 8, it was met with mixed emotions. It still is, and the decision will remain contentious. Words such as “shock” and “surprise” have been used in numerous British and other media sources to describe the PM’s announcement. It has also been met with surprise that she would call an election that is only a matter of weeks away, considering the debate going on in Scotland regarding a second independence referendum. Moreover, there is also an ongoing debate in Northern Ireland about whether, or not, there should be another election to determine the political landscape of their Assembly, referred to as Stormont. The last election in Northern Ireland was held in March of this year, and at the time of writing, no agreement has been made by any of the elected lawmakers, or parties, to form a democratic executive. However, lawmakers in the House of Commons have voted in favor of the PM’s decision, and political campaigning is now underway.
A snap election should not be viewed as too much of a shock, or a surprise. Perhaps the timing of the election is the surprising part. While it is not scientific to say that some things will definitely happen or not happen, it is important to recognize that ‘special’ or ‘emergency’ general elections in the UK have happened before during a time of turmoil, or due to pressing issues. In 1931, a general election was called with regard to division over how to handle the Great Depression. In 1974, there were two general elections — one in February 1974, and one in October 1974. The first was largely framed around how to handle the miners’ strike, and the latter was to try and produce a majority government, following the February election that returned a “hung parliament” — no party won over 50% of the seats available in the House of Commons. While Theresa May previously stated she would not hold another election prior to the one that was scheduled for 2020, that rhetoric was likely a move to calm anxieties. Furthermore, it is likely that the PM was not wanting to publicly say anything earlier due to consideration for the economy, and there is also consideration that she is simply ‘playing politics’ — moving her chess piece when she thinks the time is right.
While the election outcome cannot be guaranteed, the Conservative Party are in a strong position to do well at the polls. After all, public support for the Labour Party — the second largest party in the House of Commons — is relatively low at the moment. It will be difficult for the Labour Party to play the ‘Brexit card’ as their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has often been accused of sabotaging Labour’s efforts during the referendum to keep the UK in the EU. It has also been pointed out that Corbyn was a low-key figure during the referendum. In many of the traditional heartlands of the Labour Party, support for Brexit was the majority opinion when the votes were counted and published. In light of Brexit, the Liberal Democrats may make a political come back, especially as they are considered a pro-European party. It remains to be seen if the First Minister of Scotland’s political gamble will pay off, as she is still calling on the UK Government to let Scotland go back to the polls for a second independence referendum. However, one constitutional issue that is getting much attention is Northern Ireland.
Similarly to Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland have their own democratically elected institution, that votes on areas that are devolved from central government authority. The Northern Irish Assembly election this year was (and is) one of great significance. It was the first time, since the partition of Ireland in 1921, that the democratic outcome did not deliver a majority to unionist parties that favor Northern Ireland remaining in the UK. Northern Ireland consists of six counties: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. The other Irish counties are a part of the sovereign country that is the Republic of Ireland. Many commentators are raising eyebrows, and accusing Theresa May of not taking into account Northern Irish or Irish politics, and some view her move as unhelpful considering the efforts of the peace talks in the 90s. James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a member of May’s cabinet at Westminster, has stated that if an agreement on an executive in Northern Ireland is not made by early May, then there will either be another Stormont election, or direct rule from central government.
Scotland is also set to go back to the polls this May to elect local lawmakers (referred to as councillors) to represent all thirty-two subdivisions of Scotland, otherwise known as “council areas”. There is also much concern that Brexit is going to spill over into the efforts of candidates, political parties, and activists, that are campaigning on local issues with regard to the management of Scotland’s council areas It is highly likely that many social, political, and economic issues will be viewed, or talked about, through the lens of Brexit, and other independence movements. Thus, there is concern that some policies or issues will either be ignored, misconstrued, or Brexit will be the ‘political football’ that is used to galvanize support for candidates or parties the closer its gets to election day in Scotland. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has most certainly been a game-changer in British politics, and no-one seems to be able to slam the breaks on the in-fighting, despite the serious nature of the issues at stake, and how it impacts people’s daily lives. For citizens and residents worrying about finances, health, childcare, families, stability of employment, and pensions, for example, the amount of divisionism on display is being played out like theater in parts, causing even more anxiety.
There are many British citizens, irrespective of their voting record, or whether or not they voted to leave the EU, or want Scottish independence, seek unification with Ireland, or prefer Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, are anxiety-ridden. The constitutional crisis in the UK is affecting millions of lives, on top of other pressing concerns. What needs to happen is a measured, balanced debate, with consideration for other voices, and with much needed civility. There are many lawmakers and others in society that are engaging in multi-partisan debate and civil discourse, but some other lawmakers are being largely unhelpful. If the UK does remain intact, it is likely that the establishment of an assembly or parliament for the nation of England may be viewed as a panacea. The UK may become a federal state, but that remains to be seen.
Theresa May is caught between a rock and a hard place, but whatever happens, she will be held to account, perhaps even more so than her predecessor who called the EU referendum in the first place. The PM is faced with infighting within her own party, a UK Parliament made up of eleven political parties, including lawmakers not affiliated with any party, and a range of industry experts in society, NGOs, and other groups that are analyzing her every word. She is also governing under the era of Twitter, the election of Donald Trump, the threat of Daesh, and at a time when the media is being brutally challenged by some, irrespective of political persuasion, or none.
Based on the current state of affairs in the UK, that is why secessionist movements in the US should not be brushed aside, or considered a utopian dream that will never happen. This is not to be alarmist, but is an opinion rooted in both contemporary society and political history. There was a time when parties such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) were viewed as a bit of a joke by some, and now they are the largest party in Scotland. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) were once also viewed by some as a ridiculous fringe movement. In 2006, David Cameron, who was then leader of the Conservatives, called UKIP “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Cameron has received much condemnation for this statement, by many commentators who are not supporters of or affiliated with the party he unleashed his views on. Many continue to call that statement socially irresponsible, and the former leader of UKIP previously stated that Cameron’s remarks angered people, and encouraged them to support his party. UKIP has been one of the leading political parties for the UK leaving the EU since the days of John Major in Downing Street and Bill Clinton in the White House.
The political parties, candidates, citizens and ex-pats (who are eligible to vote in the election ) don’t have long to get organized in terms of the consideration of policies, the country’s future, the country’s economy, and what name to put an ‘X’ next to on the ballot paper.
The world’s eyes will be watching — again.