These are very interesting and exciting times in the UK. In the midst of testing intentions and wills, there seems to be some sort of consensus that the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has lost the initiative both in the country and in her own party.
Like her predecessor, David Cameron, Mrs. May took over the leadership as a suitable “compromise” candidate between the Party’s warring factions. Indeed, given the long and deeply-rooted conflict with the Conservatives regarding Europe, in addition, to the clear-cut disagreement between the hardline ideological right and the remnants of the moderate heirs of the “One Nation Toryism”, the Party developed a skill of running towards a leader whose main political asset is – more or less – having the minimum number of enemies.
Historically, the Labor Party’s incessant slide toward the extreme left during the 1970s, benefitted the only non-compromise Conservative leader since the end of WW2; and, that was … Margaret Thatcher. In order to better understand British politics, it is worthwhile to recognize two important factors:
The first, is that sometimes the most powerful or popular figures do not automatically become party leaders, and subsequently prime ministers, because the more powerful they are the more enemies they have.
The second, is that gaining the “center ground” often gives one of the major parties, Conservatives and Labor, a better chance of winning power.
Realistically, what Theresa May is hoping to achieve today is “crisis management” – nothing more – against a background of acute and old divisions which are not expected to go awayEyad Abu Shakra
By the end of WW2, the Conservatives were led by Winston Churchill; while Clement Attlee led Labor to victory after the first general elections held after that war. Despite the victory, the country’s infrastructure suffered great devastation, which required urgent rebuilding. Society itself needed a period of rehabilitation. In such circumstances, qualities and programs differed between those necessary to win the war embodied in Churchill’s Conservatives, and those necessary to rebuild the post-war institutions and services as represented by Attlee’s Labor.
After taking over the government, Attlee, the quiet and rational Labor soon embarked on building the institutions of the social security network led by the National Health Service, as well as various projects designed to deal with unemployment and trade unions’ rights, which were exactly what the wounded society badly needed then.
Both Conservatives and Labor passed through several landmarks in terms of ideology and interest-based political priorities, both internally and internationally. The two parties also lived under two types of leaderships: strong leaderships that were able to fully carry out their priorities, and compromise leaderships that insured the internal unity of their respective parties.
The Conservative Richard “Rab” Butler and Labor’s Dennis Healey were exceptional statesmen, however, ideological orientations and political interests deprived both of their parties’ leaderships, and subsequently becoming prime ministers. On the other hand, others managed to enter 10 Downing Street either because political circumstances favored them, or because they were viewed as “safe options” that would not rock the boat, and not pose a challenge or danger that may damage their parties.
As far as Europe is concerned, the UK joined what became the European Union under the moderate Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath who governed between 1970 and 1974. After his return to Downing Street, Labor ex-Prime Minister Harold Wilson (he governed between 1963 and 1970, and later between 1974 and 1976) the UK confirmed its intention to remain within the European community in a referendum held on June 1, 1975.
In general, the moderates in both parties, Conservatives and Labor, were pro-Europe, while extremists in both camps were more or less anti-Europe. The Conservative right was always too “nationalistic” and strongly in favor of free market capitalism, while the hardline Labor left infrequently viewed the idea of a European “common market” as a right-wing capitalist idea that only serves the interests of the “bourgeoisie” and big financial trusts and blocs.
Heath’s loss to Wilson in 1974 opened the doors within the Conservative Party for a leadership battle between the moderate wing led by William Whitelaw and the extremist wing whose real leader, Sir Keith Joseph, picked for the post his “protégé” Margaret Thatcher. With Thatcher’s victory, the party began a steady move to the right, as Labor were moving further and further to the Left.
The Spring of 1979 general elections, ended with a victory to Thatcher, who quickly began her “rightist Revolution”, buoyed later by the rise of “Reaganism” in the US and the slow death of the USSR. Later on, thanks to the Falklands War of 1982 and Labor’s suicidal ultra-left swerve. Thatcher solidified her position with a sweeping elections victory in 1983, followed by a third in 1987.
Despite this renewed mandate, Europe remained a divisive issue for the Conservatives; more so, because Thatcher firmly believed that the “special relations” with Washington were far more important than its relations with both Europe and the Commonwealth countries. Against her position, stood a strong pro-Europe bloc led by prominent figures like former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine.
Low-wage East European labor force that was believed by some to threaten British jobs was one of the most talked about issues in defense of Brexit. What is ironic, however, is the fact that the pro-Brexit “Thatcherist” right was very keen to welcome the former “Warsaw Pact” countries of Eastern Europe into the EU in order to “dilute” the influence of Germany, France and the Benelux Countries, and weaken the idea of European integration.
As far as Labor is concerned, the situation does not look much different. The moderate Labor have always found many common ideological denominators with Europe’s moderate left, especially, following the gradual erosion of London’s traditional relations with its former Commonwealth, and whenever America voted for the Republicans. Across the political divide, Labor’s radical left, including grass-root constituency parties’ activists and unskilled labor force shifted towards the isolationist, protectionist and anti-globalization camp. In fact, a high percentage of traditional leftists voted with the right-wing isolationists, even racists, in the Brexit referendum of 2016.
Realistically, what Theresa May is hoping to achieve today is “crisis management” – nothing more – against a background of acute and old divisions which are not expected to go away. But, she is being confronted by two groups; one that wants to leave Europe whatever the cost; the other, that believes the whole idea of Brexit was a wrong adventure.
All this is taking place, while Labor is being led by an extremist and dogmatic leadership whose convictions worry many people, including, many loyal Labor supporters.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949