United Kingdom


Key Challenges

Brexit consequences
are primary challenge
Dealing with the consequences of the Brexit referendum – internally and externally as well as politically and economically – continues to be the main challenge for the UK government and will remain so over the next couple of years, and conceivably for longer. While unsurprisingly, given the complexity of re-defining UK-EU relations, in many areas key challenges are not being handled optimally: delays, disagreements and wishful-thinking characterize the situation. It is politically understandable that the UK government shies away from publicly addressing the inevitable trade-offs of Brexit. However, current government inaction risks undermining the legitimacy of future government action. Viable solutions for these challenges will require a degree of political will and skill not hitherto seen; the future political and economic well-being of the United Kingdom depends on it.
New capacities, legislation must be developed; vast number of unanswered questions
Exiting the European Union requires the development of capacities for undertaking tasks that will be renationalized from “Brussels,” and the introduction of a vast amount of primary and secondary legislation. Such action is costly (e.g., building up regulatory expertise, and recruiting and training specialist personnel for trade negotiations or customs controls) and time consuming (e.g., parliamentary time spent agreeing on what rules to follow and working out reciprocity arrangements with regulatory agencies in other countries). Although the United Kingdom has signaled a preference for staying involved in, for example, the European Aviation Safety Agency, EU research programs and the European Medicines Agency, practical matters will have to be resolved. For example, such agencies are under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and thus breach the “red lines” Prime Minister May set out in October 2016. Similarly, there is a vast policy agenda involved in reconfiguring UK trade and other relationships with non-EU countries and regional blocs that will also need to be defined.
Party system has responded poorly
The underlying structure of the party system is proving to be a poor fit for some of the challenges that have emerged during the Brexit process and the main party leaderships have been unable to identify a viable compromise. In addition, the flexibility of the United Kingdom’s constitution and the lack of precedent for the present situation further increases political (and by implication economic) uncertainty. After a year in which little progress has been made in reconciling the divisions within and between political parties, an urgent challenge is to find cross-party consensus in pursuing a coherent course for the next stages of Brexit.
Ireland border a
pivotal issue
The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with its focus on economic as well as political problems (and the contradictions between both), has emerged as a pivotal issue in EU-UK negotiations. While the Republic of Ireland has the support of the EU27 for a solution that does not threaten the Northern Irish peace process, the May government relies on a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement with the DUP, a party intent on vetoing any proposal that would weaken Northern Ireland’s union with the rest of the United Kingdom. Avoiding a threat to the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom while also not endangering the achievements of the North Irish peace process is not only a challenge for the resolution of the Withdrawal Agreement, but also for the future of the United Kingdom. In addition, the Northern Ireland Executive, which has been suspended for the last two years due to disagreements between Northern Ireland’s main political parties, urgently needs to be restored.
Other long-term challenges neglected
Meanwhile, several other longer-term challenges have been neglected. Low investment, lackluster productivity growth, housing shortages and strains in public services require a renewed focus from a government that claims to be putting an end to years of austerity policies, yet is constrained by the need to consolidate public finances. The United Kingdom has to look afresh at whether recent governance reforms remain adequate for purpose. Local government, in particular, has been weakened by funding cuts from central government. Although there is a new tier of “metro” mayors in some parts of England that have more substantial executive powers for delivering public services (emulating to some extent the much greater devolution accorded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), local government task funding remains a challenge. A rethink of the balance between local government revenue raising and transfers from central government is needed.

Party Polarization

Two parties
dominate system
In the British system of government, the logic of the two-party system is fundamental. Although far more than two parties sit in parliament (in the 2017 general election for the House of Commons, members from no fewer than eight parties won seats); however, for the last several decades, prime ministers have been drawn from only two parties. Besides the political, there is also an institutional side to the two-party structure, namely the Office of the Leader of the Loyal Opposition. The entire logic and architecture of the British House of Commons is geared toward a two-party antagonism, albeit with the corollary that both major parties are themselves coalitions of party members and members of parliament with very different policy positions.
Strong incentives
for party unity
Effective “whipping” nevertheless means a strong incentive to maintain party unity on key parliamentary votes. In the non-elected second chamber, the House of Lords, both the role and influence of “crossbenchers” are more prominent, but it is the House of Commons that dominates parliament.
Little need for major parties to strike agreements
Historically, the “first-past-the-post” electoral system has nearly always tended to produce stable one-party government majorities, including massive majorities during the Thatcher and Blair years in office. As this capacity has decreased in recent years, governments have relied on formal coalitions (2010 – 2015) or, as at present, on “confidence-and-supply” arrangements with smaller parties. Given the absence of a federal structure in the United Kingdom, single-party governments almost never have to rely on cross-party agreement, which is why the dominant two-party antagonism has never required dampening and could rarely be considered an obstacle for policymaking.
Polarization has
hampered Brexit
In the process of Brexit, however, with both parties split over the issue, intense polarization in the party system has prevented a cross-party cooperative approach in favor of the maintenance of intra-party discipline. This has put a considerable strain on party coherence, especially within the Conservative Party in which a sizable euro-skeptic grouping of members of parliament (known, despite the obvious irony, as the European Research Group) has repeatedly made life difficult for the minority Conservative government. Whether this negative experience will in the future lead to a less combative and polarizing relationship between the two main parties remains to be seen. (Score: 5)
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