One of the comfortable things about observing the British election is that whatever the outcome, the impacts on the life of the Irish viewer will be largely insignificant. If the Conservatives win a majority, a Brexit deal will pass which is acceptable to the Irish Government. If Mr. Corbyn ends up as Prime Minister, there will be a referendum between a Brexit deal that is acceptable to the Irish Government, and remain, which is even more acceptable.
The tax increases and spending pledges of Labour, or the big infrastructure projects favoured by the Conservatives, won’t really affect any of us. Our own chance to decide our future will come in the spring, when we get to choose between two basically identical parties to lead our Government for the first five years of the 2020s. Whatever else one might think of Great Britain, at least its voters have a real choice tomorrow.
That choice, whichever one it is, will have a major long term impact on our nearest neighbour. The two largest issues in the election have been Brexit, and health care, both of which have some political echoes here in Ireland.
On Brexit, the choice is simple: Do the British people get what they voted for in 2016 – a departure from the European Union – or are they asked to vote for it again? The arguments for the second position, another referendum, are uniformly weak. Amongst other things, they are based on the idea that there was “no agreed version of Brexit”, or that the realities of the situation have now changed so people should have a chance to change their mind.
On the first point, while it is true that there was no agreed version of Brexit, it was agreed, by all and sundry, that Brexit meant leaving the European Union. There is no clearer, or more simple mandate, than that, and it was carried with more votes than any other proposition in the long political history of our nearest neighbour. There was absolutely no version of Brexit that meant “a second referendum with a choice to remain”. The idea that people voted for that, or that that’s how their votes should be read, is an absurd lie, and it’s one that has been embraced by all of Britain’s opposition parties.
Nobody who has observed the bitterness of this General Election campaign could possibly delude themselves that a second Brexit referendum would be anything other than the most angry, and rage-filled spectacle. Would a remain victory in that referendum settle the issue, or would it be the best of three? Or five? Or seven? The desire of the losers from 2016 to win now, at almost any cost, is an act of societal destruction that borders on the deranged. Brexit was a bad idea, yes, and the last three years of paralysis prove that to some extent – but that’s democracy. The public are allowed to vote for, and see implemented, bad ideas. If they are not, then it’s not a democracy at all, just a country in which one group’s preferences are elevated above those of the majority.
On healthcare, Britain is wrestling with the legacy of nine years of Conservative Government, and its actions to resolve the fiscal crisis it inherited in 2010. British conservatism can be callous, and at times cruel. Stories of terminally ill people being forced to report to job centres to be assessed for fitness to work, for example, are genuinely horrifying and shameful. In addition, measures like the so-called “bedroom tax”, which effectively forced people either to share their homes with strangers, or pay more, could only have been implemented by a Government filled with people unlikely to ever experience that indignity themselves.
When Mr. Corbyn says that austerity has hurt many people, he is not wrong. But identifying a problem is not the same thing as having a workable solution. Labour cannot ignore, nor should they be allowed to ignore, their own role in the misery of the poorest Britons. When last they left Government, they left behind a note for their successors, reading “Dear Chief Secretary, I am afraid there is no money left”.
It is in that context that we should view Mr. Corbyn’s plans to borrow hundreds of billions of pounds to nationalise almost every UK utility, up to and including broadband. It is in that context that we should view his pledge, though he is now resiling from it, to introduce a four-day week. It is in that context that we should hear him when he says he wants there to be no more billionaires in Britain. Both major parties have had their spending plans criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but not all criticisms are equal. There’s a difference between not being clear on where six billion pounds will come from, and not being clear on where eight hundred billion pounds will come from.
Finally, there’s the question of character. Boris Johnson is a serial liar, a serial philanderer, and quite possibly a sociopath. Jeremy Corbyn is a man so honest he is willing to defend his principles even when they are deeply unpopular. There is something very attractive about that, which in part explains his enduring popularity with the young.
But having principles and sticking to them is not the same as having the right principles. Mr. Corbyn leads a party that has been so hostile to Jewish people that a majority of British Jews say they would leave the country if he won. He is so blind to genuine injustice that he has happily shared many a stage with murderers, and terrorists, and enemies of his own country. His defenders say this shows a willingness to engage with those he disagrees with in order to aid the cause of peace – but they go very quiet when you ask them whether he has ever shared a stage with a right-wing terrorist. Because he has not. His principles and sympathies run in one direction only, and he has consistently been blind to extremism, even within his own party.
It has become popular in Irish circles, particularly in places like the Irish Times, to say that Mr. Corbyn has been an “incompetent” leader of the opposition, but this is entirely nonsense. He has, in fact, been very successful. At the last election, he overcame the odds to deprive Mrs. May of victory. He has blocked Brexit for three years, while successfully convincing many that he actually supports it. He has made austerity and its impacts a central issue in the UK, while removing all blame from Labour for it, which is a stunning political achievement.
But ultimately, he is a bad, and dangerous man. When the choice is between a zealot with bad ideas, and a lying buffoon who has never met a principle he couldn’t change if it was unpopular, the choice is easy. If you’re a Briton, vote for Boris.