Dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic and the medium-term consequences of Brexit will be the two most prominent challenges for the United Kingdom in the near term. But there are underlying problems and policy dilemmas that have been neglected for too long, such as regional inequality, the cohesion of the United Kingdom, and finding enduring solutions to the inadequacies of social care for an aging population and insufficient housing.
Aspects of EU
Many aspects of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union remain unresolved, including UK access to European markets for financial and business services (a vital sector of the UK economy), fisheries, security cooperation, and control over immigration policy. An immediate problem for the United Kingdom is the shortcomings in the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protocol’s operation has manifestly antagonized the unionist community, and could undermine the delicate political compromises that have been central to peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. However, there is no easy way to avoid the creation of at least a minimal border in the Irish Sea, so long as NOT having a border in Ireland is deemed inviolable. The problem is compounded by pressure from some Conservative members of parliament for the government to take a tough line.
More strategically, as the pandemic eases, the government will have the challenge of demonstrating that it can deliver benefits from Brexit. While a few new trade deals (as opposed to rolling over deals done by the European Union) have been negotiated (e.g., with Australia), these deals are not expected to have a substantial economic impact. Similarly, there have been few significant regulatory changes capable of transforming economic prospects and most mainstream analyses project slower growth as a result of Brexit.
Economically, the outlook is challenging. Inflation levels not seen for 30 years, labor shortages in some sectors, relatively high youth unemployment (though falling) and continuing regional differences in unemployment (though low) are a politically difficult combination. Rising energy prices will be politically dangerous in the short term, especially in the context of a wider “cost of living” crisis. Furthermore, if wages continue to rise more slowly than prices, consumer demand as the engine of growth could falter. Normalization of interest rates will be potentially difficult for both the state, having (sensibly) allowed public debt to rise during the pandemic, and private borrowers.
The prime minister’s commitment to “leveling-up” the weaker parts of the country – for which there is even a government department – will have to be fleshed out, building on the proposals outlined in a recent whitepaper. Leveling-up implies greater public investment, more infrastructure spending, and more money spent on the NHS, schools and the police. It will be politically tricky to reconcile the instincts of many Conservative politicians interested in sound fiscal policy, with measures that require more spending and higher taxation (i.e., a “bigger state”). Yet, the Conservatives will need to deliver if they are to consolidate the recent political gains made in “Red Wall” constituencies, which proved crucial to the formation of their present parliamentary majority.
Unity of United
The unity of the United Kingdom remains a challenge. Partly because of Brexit, support for independence in Scotland has grown, and the pandemic has given the devolved governments, and city and metro mayors an opportunity to present themselves as self-confident political actors. The Scottish Parliament elections in 2021 resulted in a majority for pro-independence parties and the stance of Westminster in refusing a referendum will eventually become untenable. A move toward a unified Ireland may also surface, given the provisions of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and dismay in the province about the functioning of the Northern Ireland Protocol. How a restored Northern Ireland Executive functions will be pivotal.
Limited formal checks
The United Kingdom is a stable liberal democracy that has weathered many problems and crises. The flexibility of its unwritten constitution has often been praised, but there are also risks involved and, as recent revelations of chaotic operations around the prime minster have highlighted, the system relies on effective leadership from Number 10. These risks lie in the limited formal checks and balances on informal understandings on which the functioning of much of the system relies. The present government has repeatedly tried to juxtapose the “will of the people” to that of elected representatives when it was politically advantageous to do so, and several legislative proposals seem to have been put forward with the goal of reining in institutions, such as the judiciary and the Election Commission, both central to the functioning of the system. Changes in these areas could substantially alter the character of the political system.
Political system with
In the British system of government, the logic of the two-party system is fundamental, even though 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, over the last 100 years, 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 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. 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.
Stable majorities or smooth coalitions
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. Following the elections in 2010 and again in 2017, no party secured a majority. Consequently, the Conservative-led governments had to rely on a formal coalition (2010 – 2015), and a “confidence-and-supply” arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (2017 – 2019). Nevertheless, governments reliant on cross-party agreements have historically been an exception, with the result that polarization between the two dominant parties is rarely an obstacle to policymaking. Moreover, during the coalition government of 2010 – 2015, a coalition agreement was reached within days and party polarization did not noticeably impede policymaking.
By contrast, during the 2016 – 2019 government led by Theresa May, the conjunction of a minority government and Brexit, an issue that transcended normal party divisions, changed things. Dissenting factional views inside the two major parties over this issue, perhaps more than ideological polarization in the party system, repeatedly obstructed the achievement of compromises. This put considerable strain on the internal coherence of both major parties. In early 2019, a small number of members of parliament withdrew from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to form The Independent Group (later renamed Change UK). However, this group failed to build sufficient political momentum and establish itself. Consequently, several of its more prominent members moved on to the Liberal Democrats.
Several (mainly centrist) members of parliament did not to seek re-election, either as a party or an independent candidate, in the 2019 general election. In that election, the manifestoes of the two main parties were more polarized than usual.
Return to one-party government
With the 2019 general election delivering a clear majority for the Conservative Party, one-party government has returned and intra-party polarization is no longer a major obstacle to policymaking. Indeed, several key policy decisions, regarding a greater role for the state (and not only because of the pandemic), have proved to be at odds with the traditional ideological stance of the ruling Conservative Party. (Score: 9)