May 23rd — The UK’s New Doomsday
With the passing of March 29th — supposed to have been Brexit Day — two dates loom for citizens of the UK and Europe.
I sometimes find it surprising to realise that no-one under 55 was an adult during the whole of the 1980s. I have been recalling my rather peripheral involvement in politics during that decade and wondering whether there is any merit in attempting to compare the feelings of alienation, felt by many back then, and the numerous protest movements that existed, with the present atmosphere in the UK, almost 3 years after a small majority voted to take the country out of the EU.
The overwhelming impression I have when recalling the 1980s is of a strong feeling of a battle between people and government. The government, under Margaret Thatcher, was able to exercise considerable power owing to the large majorities secured in successive general elections.
The opposition, both political and informal, was divided. Politically there was the centre-left Liberal -SDP “Alliance” and a Labour Party in which the “Militant” wing seemed to many to have too much power. Informally there were peace campaigners, of which the Greenham protesters were the most well known. Loosely allied to them were the New Age convoys and their free festivals — a “movement” which culminated in the “Beanfield” confrontation in 1985.
The Trade Union movement came under sustained attack from a Conservative government determined to end the stranglehold it appeared to have gained during the 1960s and ’70s. There was, too, a popular movement towards increasing the UK’s aid to what was then referred to as “The Third World”. I remember participating in a march of several thousand individuals which ended with a meeting between a few of us and the Development Minister who listened politely but did nothing.
Attempts to reform the financing of local government culminated in the Poll Tax riots of 1990
If anything, the situation today is the reverse of that. The government, lacking a Parliamentary majority, has lost all authority. And Parliament has retreated from any semblance of Party solidarity into several cross-party factions each with a very different view of the UK’s future direction. Meanwhile public protest, though increasingly noisy, is concerned exclusively about a single, all consuming, issue. So far we have not seen the kind of violence that characterised the policing of Greenham, the miners’ strike, the Beanfield confrontation or the Poll Tax protests.
There have, however, been death threats issued to certain politicians.
The public generally, whether pro- or anti-Brexit, is utterly sick of politicians across the board. And it now seems likely that 3, or possibly 4, polls are about to be introduced into this febrile atmosphere. May 2nd is already designated, as is the first Thursday in May every year, for elections to local councils across the UK. If the country’s membership of the EU were to extend beyond 12th April, elections to the European Parliament would have to be held between 23rd and 26th of May. There is serious talk, too, of a General Election and a new referendum (usually referred to as a “People’s Vote”) in an attempt to break the deadlock in Parliament.
I cannot conceive of the anger and division that will accompany these polls. They could, of course, be held simultaneously — presumably on May 23rd.
It is important to recognise that, unless the UK leaves the EU on April 12th, a General Election, whether or not accompanied by a referendum, can not now take place without the UK also holding elections to the European Parliament.
I can’t avoid the use of a cliche at this point. If you thought March was an interesting month, politically, in the UK, you ain’t seen nothing yet. May looks like being a month to dread.