Brexit debate drives watershed year
The United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union has dominated British politics since the June 2016 referendum was called. In this respect, 2019 was a watershed year, as it brought to a head all the political and constitutional challenges of what, by the standards of recent decades, was a momentous governance change. As a representative democracy, the UK constitutional system had struggled to come to terms with the exercise of direct democracy in the 2016 referendum, not least because a sizable majority of members of parliament continued to oppose Brexit. With traditional left-right partisan politics overlaid by leave-remain cleavages, regional divisions and country differences, the British body politic faced exceptional circumstances.
The negotiation of a withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and European Union was tortuous, but the government’s repeated failure to secure the House of Commons’ support for the agreement, exposed a variety of governance problems, both on an institutional and political level. Institutionally, the roles of the executive, the courts and the monarch (as head of state) came under stress. Parliament was shut down against its will, the queen was dragged within touching distance of involvement in a political position, the prime minister was very publicly corrected by the High Court, the government destroyed its own precarious majority through a decidedly un-Conservative purge of the ranks of its own members of parliament and the government openly broke several ministerial promises to Parliament.
too weak to steer
too weak to steer
Politically, the problems arose largely from the inability of a minority government to cope with the highly contested challenge of delivering on the result of the referendum and the commitment of the two major parties in their 2017 election manifestos to respect that result. The replacement of Theresa May by Boris Johnson as prime minister introduced a very different political style, which initially deepened the political crisis, but then led to a further election to resolve it.
Although, at times, the shenanigans in Westminster both transfixed and appalled external observers, it is moot whether this should be regarded as evidence of hitherto undetected failures of governance or, given that the different arms of power did their jobs and a solution was eventually achieved, a temporary aberration. Reappraisal of some variables covered in this report is therefore warranted.
Major parties narrow ideological range
As they approached the 2019 general election (the third in a little over four years, in itself an indicator of political instability), both major parties had been undergoing a process of narrowing their ideological range, with the process speeding up as the 2019 general election got under way. Some, mainly centrist, members of parliament in both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party (including a few holding senior positions), decided to stand down, some of them also leaving their parties, effectively admitting defeat in the intra-party fights that have been going on for years in both parties. The result is two more streamlined and more ideologically coherent, but also narrower, major parties. At the same time, attempts to resolve parliamentary polarization through the setting up of new parties or cooperation between existing parties foundered. A solution to the governance impasse in Northern Ireland proved elusive, with the suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive extended to three years.
Brexit crowds out
other policy concerns
other policy concerns
The disputes around Brexit also crowded out work on several policy domains which require urgent attention, most obviously healthcare (with the National Health Service suffering from capacity problems, likely to be exacerbated by EU staff leaving) and its interactions with social care (especially for the elderly), adequate housing provision and regional disparities. While these issues featured to varying degrees in the 2019 election campaign, the campaign was, nevertheless, dominated by the issue of how to extricate the country from Brexit. Although economic growth slowed in 2019, unemployment remains low, albeit with the unwelcome corollary of stagnating productivity growth. However, the British economy remains vulnerable to Brexit-related uncertainty surrounding future trading arrangements with its biggest trading partner, the EU27.
Unsurprisingly, executive capacity has been tested in the last year. For the most part, the improvements of recent years in communication and strategic capacities have been maintained, and it is noteworthy that even without a majority, Boris Johnson was able to reshape government significantly.