Mar 18th 2024

The UK's Upcoming Election and Its Consequences

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

 

LONDON – Dozens of developed and developing countries, representing half of the world’s population, are set to hold or have already held elections in 2024. While the outcome of some races may seem predetermined, the upcoming elections in the United States and India, as well as Taiwan’s recent presidential election, will have far-reaching global implications, regardless of who wins.

For the world’s liberal democracies, the most consequential of these races is undoubtedly November’s US presidential election. Regrettably, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that American voters will elect former President Donald Trump. Given that Trump has shown no regard for the rule of law and prefers the company of autocratic leaders to that of democratically elected ones, free societies around the world will anxiously await the results. Many will be praying for President Joe Biden to win.

Another critical election, at least for Europe, will be the United Kingdom’s upcoming general election, which is expected to take place sometime in the second half of this year. With a 20% lead in the polls, the opposition Labour Party is the clear frontrunner. Given the country’s political dysfunction, however, it remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to implement its economic-policy agenda.

The British economy and political system have been upended over the past few years by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. While the UK’s Conservative government maintains that it should not be blamed for global developments beyond its control, it should be held accountable for facilitating the UK’s disastrous exit from the European Union.

Overall, British politicians are reluctant to talk about Brexit. This can be partly attributed to many voters’ unwillingness to broach the subject, especially those misled by the “Leave” campaign, and to the efforts of prominent Brexiteers to shut down debate. But the UK’s current economic woes – falling exports, slowing growth, low productivity, high taxes, and strained public finances – underscore the urgency of confronting Brexit’s catastrophic consequences.

To be sure, commanding and retaining majority support for some of the difficult decisions ahead will not be easy. In fact, it is astonishing that the decision to leave the EU, arguably the UK’s most consequential decision since the end of World War II, was made with little to no planning, based on lies, empty promises, and misconceptions.

The UK’s current predicament brings to mind the iconic final scene of the 1969 film The Italian Job, in which a group of robbers led by Michael Caine makes a getaway in a bus heavily loaded with stacks of gold bars. While speeding through a sharp mountainous curve, the coach ends up teetering on the edge of a cliff. The gold is positioned at one end of the bus, and the thieves are at the opposite end, with any sudden movement potentially sending the vehicle tumbling down. Caine’s closing line could have served as a slogan for the “Leave” campaign: “Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea.”

Brexiteers’ promises that leaving the EU would revitalize British sovereignty and usher in an era of economic prosperity were rooted in misguided optimism. Now, confronted with the painful consequences of its decision, the UK finds itself at a crossroads.

So, as Lenin famously asked, “What is to be done?” First, British voters must ensure that their political leaders can no longer remain in denial about what has happened. Second, the UK must repair its relationship with the EU.

While some may hope that the UK will rejoin the EU, such an outcome is extremely unlikely without meaningful changes to the bloc’s structure. A scenario in which the UK adheres to most of the EU’s economic rules without playing a role in shaping them seems to be a nonstarter.

What British policymakers could do, albeit at the risk of raising the ire of Europhobes in Parliament and the media, is to work more closely with their European counterparts to undo some of the damage caused by Brexit. Specifically, Britain should collaborate on defense, especially with France, to complement its NATO commitments.

Moreover, the UK could mitigate some of the disruption to trade with Europe and other countries by reconsidering its previous opposition to regulatory alignment. Why, for example, should the UK’s rules on health and phytosanitary standards differ from those of the EU? The two sides can collaborate on a range of issues, such as artificial intelligence, education, visas, and professional licensing.

Given the ongoing migration crisis, British policymakers must also work closely with their European counterparts on how best to address the root causes of mass immigration from Africa and West Asia. This could involve a combination of aid and security measures designed to encourage potential asylum seekers to stay in their home countries rather than risk the perilous journey to Europe.

These issues should be at the top of the next government’s agenda, whether it is led by Labour or the Conservative Party. Crucially, the UK must avoid the pitfalls of mindless right-wing populism, which fails to provide sustainable solutions and remains deeply unpopular.

Over the past few years, the UK has showcased its lack of intelligent and effective governance, leading the international community to approach its upcoming election with indifference. It is up to whoever wins to restore Britain’s global standing by putting it back on the path to economic prosperity, security, and self-respect.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of The Hong Kong Diaries (Allen Lane, 2022).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.
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