Arthur I. Cyr

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”

The bitter, painful divorce between Britain and the European Union continues to grind on. This specific conflict stems from the referendum in June 2016 in the United Kingdom. There was only one main question to decide in that public vote: whether to remain in the EU or leave.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron took a major political gamble in calling the referendum vote. He and his party had just won a narrow but clear victory in the 2015 general election. In consequence, the political wind appeared to be strongly behind Conservative sails.

In classic rough British political fashion, the prime minister had worked to undermine the Liberal Democrats, the small but durable party that was a partner of necessity in the coalition government of 2010 to 2015. No single party had won a clear House of Commons majority in the 2010 vote.

Politics in Britain, as in other countries, is a ruthless competition, though the rule of law is firmly established.

Cameron was riding high, until suddenly he was not. Public opinion polls predicted a narrow victory for remaining in the EU, but instead the people voted to leave. British custom, in contrast to practice in the United States, does not facilitate being a lame duck. Rather, a major loss means the leader departs.

The prime minister immediately resigned. His successor is Theresa May, who emerged victorious from a brief but intense competition within the party. Unlike Cameron, she had little chance to ride high, or at all. Another political gambler, she opted for a quite early general election, held June 8, 2017.

Strategists calculated the thin Conservative majority would increase. Instead, that majority was lost, and no other party secured a mandate.

Since World War II, there has been a slow but steady decline in public support for the two major parties, Conservatives and Labour. The Liberal Democrats (previously the Liberal Party) have enjoyed fitful but long-term growth, though coalition with the Conservatives has discredited them among many of their most loyal supporters and voters. The Scottish National Party has also gained, in an uneven manner. Welsh Nationalists and other small parties also have representation.

Political ruthlessness can be ultimately counterproductive, in any political system. Had Cameron treated the Liberal Democrats more fairly, another coalition with them would have been conceivable. His actions removed that option.

Instead, May has had to form a coalition with the small DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) of Northern Ireland. The party has agreed to support Brexit, the shorthand term for leaving the EU, in return for an estimated 1 billion Euros in aid for Northern Ireland, a relatively poor region.

The DUP is extremely conservative in the context of contemporary British politics. Additionally, Northern Ireland is part of the economy of the Republic of Ireland, in turn a committed member of the EU. Ireland is a neutral nation and not a NATO member.

Coalition governments in Britain are unusual and usually a sign of uncertainty.

The dramatic exception is the determined coalition led by Winston Churchill during World War II. That reflected desperate circumstances. France had just fallen to Nazi Germany, and invasion of the British Isles seemed imminent.

EU predecessor organizations began after the war, fostered by the United States using economic integration to forestall a third devastating conflict.

Current political squabbles within Britain and EU involve economics, in a Europe far removed from general war.

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Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu. The opinions are the writer's.

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