The snap election called by Theresa May in Britain has resulted in a hung parliament, the Conservatives having lost their majority and now needing the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to join a coalition to maintain May’s leadership. The purpose for the election was to increase the number of seats held by the Tories as the United Kingdom heads toward negotiations for the country’s exit from the European Union, and their losses call into question how that departure will go.
Does the 2017 election express a wish for a Brexit do-over? That’s not so clear, since the results were divided more along the lines of England and Wales wanting out, while Scotland and Northern Ireland expressed their desire to remain in the E.U. Labour did hold on to seats centered around London, which was a center of opposition to Brexit, but the party also had strong support in Wales and in northern England where the choice to leave got fifty-two to fifty-eight percent of the vote.
But when we consider the age of voters in the two elections, 2016 and 2017, Brexit regret becomes more of a possible explanation. Younger voters favored remaining in the E.U., but they tended to sit out the actual work of casting a ballot. By contrast, a million Britons of ages eighteen to twenty-four registered to vote in the recent election, and their votes went heavily for Labour. This isn’t so much buyer’s remorse as it is a recognition of Neil Peart’s lyric that “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
And the old political certainties are losing their appearance of the inevitable. The share of the vote that the Conservatives and Labour have received over the years have been going down over time. A lot of the gains being made by third parties have been for those that have nationalist leanings, the Scottish National Party being one example. As stated above, the Tories are hanging on in a hung parliament through the aid of a party in Northern Ireland, a movement committed to preserving the ties of six Irish counties to Britain. But Scotland toys with leaving the United Kingdom and running back toward Europe, while English nationalists may be willing to let them go.
As someone who lived through the 90s, I find something familiar here. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was a test of the concept of multicultural society. Of course, that nation had been held together by authoritarian rule — now and then benevolent — so it’s perhaps not the best case of the progressive dream. But the fact that things fell apart so easily and so violently is still depressing.
That’s especially so when I contemplate the results of the 2016 election in the United States. Trump appealed to the fears, ignorance, and bigotry of millions of Americans, pandering to the belief that being a part of the world is a threat rather than a blessing. But the good news from Britain is that young people are waking up. The world that they want is not divided into isolated enclaves with the inhabitants alternating between alarm over their perceptions of the threat of difference and their feeling of smugness about who they believe themselves to be.
The British vote also reminds us that we build nations election by election and generation by generation. We in the U.S. get our next official chance in 2018, and it’s our continual duty to resist every day. The vision of a world in which our differences are an asset, an opportunity depends on people of good will holding on while the regressivism of Trump and people like him age out and fade into the past.
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