Decoding the meaning of Johnson’s poll victory
The New Year will see Britain leaving the European Union (EU). How has this happened and what will it indicate for the future of Britain, India and the rest of the world? It’s happened because Boris Johnson, the populist leader of the Conservative Party, has trounced Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the election. The nationalist Johnson fought on one issue: “Get Brexit done”. Corbyn offered a return to old-fashioned socialism, with a long list of promises, but few were convinced that he would ever be able to find the money to fund those.
Although Britain will leave the EU, Johnson will still have to negotiate a new trade relationship with Europe. This could be easier than was being suggested because his sizeable majority means he can make concessions to Europe, without fearing a reaction from hardcore anti-Europeans. But he will have to walk wearily with the Scots. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, and her Scottish Nationalists party, won all but seven seats in her country. She has warned Johnson that he has no mandate to take Scotland out of Europe.
What does this mean for India? It means that Johnson will certainly come knocking on the door, asking for a trade deal. He has sold Brexit with the promise of wonderful trade deals Britain will be able to do, once it is free of the deals Europe binds it to. Johnson has shown his concern for keeping India happy by the concessions he has made for students to work while studying in Britain. His trade commissioner for South Asia has said trade between the two countries may not be affected after Brexit. But the balance of trade is currently in favour of Britain.
Realising Johnson’s vulnerability because of his need to show that it’s better to trade outside Europe than inside, India may well insist on concessions that swing the balance the other way. Recently, a delegation of British industrialists and business came here. Among their interests was the possibility of collaboration between the two countries to win lucrative contracts in oil-rich West Asia.
What might be the global consequences of Johnson’s victory and the downfall of Labour? It means that parties of the Left and the Centre have to find more convincing ways of attracting voters. Corbyn has shown that Leftwing populism is not an adequate response to Right-wing populism. This election also indicates that the Centre-Left ideology is no answer either. The two prominent world leaders of that persuasion — Justin Trudeau of Canada and Emmanuel Macron of France — may still be more popular than Right-wing populists, but they are not standing on firm ground.
So, Johnson’s victory adds to the evidence that there is no challenge to popularism at present. But trends in politics don’t last forever. When I was young in Britain, socialism seemed the only moral option. Then the socialists went too far to the Left, and there was the Margaret Thatcher reaction. Now the glaring gap between then prosperous and the poor, created by the neo-liberal economics of Thatcher and former United President Ronald Reagan, has created a backlash, leading to those who have suffered most voting for Right-wing nationalism. So, there is bound to be a reaction against nationalist populism when it doesn’t deliver on the exaggerated promises its charismatic leaders make.
There is another way the nationalist politicians could be defeated. They could destroy themselves by coming to believe that because of their popularity, they embody the nation and any opposition to them is anti-national. According to Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s deputy prime minister, whose resignation sparked off the revolution against her within the Conservative Party, “The insistence on the undivided sovereignty of her own opinion dressed up as the nation’s sovereignty was her undoing.”