5 Political Debates Happening in the UK Today
It’s a tumultuous time in British politics.
The dust is still settling from the EU referendum result. Theresa May is still enjoying a honeymoon period that may or may not last. Nicola Sturgeon has called for a second Scottish independence referendum that may lead to the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. And almost unreported by the British press, the power-sharing agreement that enables Northern Ireland to be governed is floundering and may fail, with unknown consequences for the fragile political situation there.
In the early 2000s, the key debates in British politics were about Iraq, terrorism and civil liberties, which gave way to the financial crisis and then to the politics of coalition government and austerity. The late 2010s will be defined by the outcomes of those debates, and by their own set of questions – here are some of the key topics under consideration.
1. What should Brexit mean?
If there’s any one question that will define the coming years and even decades in British politics, it’s this. When asked on the 23rd June 2016, ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’, 51.9% of voters opted for ‘Leave the European Union’. That might seem a straightforward answer. In reality, it’s anything but.
The difficulty is that before the referendum took place, there was no real consensus on what Britain’s position out of the EU should be. Since then, divisions have emerged between a ‘soft Brexit’ (which might involve the kind of relationship with the EU that Norway has) and a ‘hard Brexit’, or ‘clean Brexit’ as its supporters prefer (which would involve saying goodbye not only to the EU but also declining to join any halfway organisations such as EFTA).
There are three key issues at play: immigration, trade and payments. In order to maintain the kind of free trade with EU member states that Britain currently enjoys, it seems likely that we would need to compromise on freedom of movement, allowing EU citizens to continue to live and work in Britain freely as they have done up to now. That isn’t acceptable to many Brexit supporters, who in some cases are happy to take a financial hit from the trading perspective if it means Britain regaining full border controls.
The wildcard is what kind of continuing payments Britain makes to the EU; the EU may be prepared to cut a relatively generous deal in terms of trading and immigration if Britain maintains the bulk of its current payments. Unsurprisingly, supporters of a hard Brexit are also opposed to this approach, but it’s probably the area where the general public will find a compromise most palatable – not least because the government may be able to conceal the full extent of the bill.
This debate is going to be rumbling on for some years yet. While the official process of leaving the EU takes two years, making trade agreements takes rather longer, so it’s likely that the UK will agree some manner of transitional deal while everything is being ironed out. It’s not implausible that such a transitional deal would stay in place for a decade or more – so finding out exactly what Brexit means will require some patience.
2. Should Scotland stay in the Union?
The relationship between the countries of England and Scotland has been a rocky one. Border skirmishes and at times all-out war dominated most of the Middle Ages, then in 1603, James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne and became James I of England. The two countries shared monarchs for another hundred years, then entered into a formal Act of Union in 1707 – forming, along with Wales, the United Kingdom.
But the union was never an entirely comfortable one. While Scotland never suffered as much under English rule as Ireland did and therefore sought independence less eagerly, pro-independence sentiment has bubbled along for quite some time. In 1943, the Scottish National Party, more usually known as the SNP, were founded to champion the cause of Scottish independence. In 1997, a referendum was held in which the Scottish voted in favour of devolution, gaining Scotland its own parliament with control over most domestic policy. The hope from Westminster was that devolution would stem the desire for independence, but that proved not to be the case.
Instead, the SNP have gone from strength to strength. A fiercely contested independence referendum was held in 2014, where 55% opposed independence. A key factor was that Scotland has traditionally been pro-EU, and the Scottish were concerned that if they became independent, they wouldn’t be able to retain EU membership. Now that has changed entirely, it’s being used as grounds for Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, to call for a second independence referendum once the terms of Brexit have been made clear.
So what are the arguments? Firstly, there’s the question of whether it’s appropriate to have a referendum at all; the one in 2014 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation occurrence. Then there’s the EU. 62% of Scottish voters were in favour of remaining in the EU, compared to 47% of English voters; if Scotland could guarantee being able to become an EU member state, or at least joining the EEA, as an independent country, that would be a powerful argument in favour of independence for many of its citizens. This also adds extra credence to the claim that Scotland has a notably different character to the rest of the United Kingdom. But the final question – which may be the deciding factor – is whether Scotland will suffer economically from a vote to become independent, should that second referendum end up taking place.
3. What role should the Labour Party have?
The British Labour party has always been a slightly odd coalition between centre-left social democrats and far left socialists; in Germany, for instance, this space is covered by two parties, the centre-left SDP and the far-left Die Linke. At some points in Labour’s history, that’s been a reasonably comfortable marriage, usually with the far-left grouping broadly accepting the policies of the centre-left as a stepping stone towards the kind of politics they would prefer to see.
At other times, it’s been much less comfortable, as in the 1980s when a group of centre-left MPs left Labour in order to form the Social Democratic Party (which ultimately merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats). With the exception of that point, it’s hard to think of any other time in Labour’s century plus of history where the union of these two groups has been less happy or less stable.
Labour’s rules for electing their leader had always kept the far-left from gaining too much power, but these were changed ahead of the 2015 leadership election, triggered by the resignation of Ed Miliband after he lost the general election. That paved the way for Jeremy Corbyn to win – a far-left backbencher who had never held ministerial office and who held the record for rebelling against the leadership in parliamentary votes. His politics have proven hugely popular among Labour party members (a membership which has grown massively as a result of his leadership) but much less popular among Labour MPs and the general public. As a result, the Conservatives are currently enjoying record leads over Labour in the polls.
One perspective argues that this isn’t a problem. It’s held by people who believe that politics at Westminster is letting people down; that the way forward is to re-shape the political system, prioritising direct action and community-based change. In this way of looking at things, who the largest party in government is will become increasingly irrelevant as ordinary people are encouraged to take power into their own hands – and Jeremy Corbyn, they believe, is the man to lead that change.
The alternative perspective states that however imperfect the Westminster system might be, it’s what we’ve got, and you can’t effect change without winning elections. That might mean compromising or pursuing policies that are palatable to as broad a range of the electorate as possible, sacrificing ideological purity in favour of whatever might bring Labour back into power. In the meantime, this perspective suggests, Corbyn needs to be replaced as quickly as possible with someone who is willing to get stuck into the business of being Leader of the Opposition, not of a protest movement. Which side wins won’t just determine the fate of a single political party, but will have ramifications for British politics for some years to come.
4. How should we adapt to growing automation?
Britain today enjoys relatively low unemployment, but it’s clear that here as in other countries, the increase in automation could turn that on its head. Automation can entirely eliminate a job; think of self-driving lorries putting drivers out of business – or, more often, it can cause only one or two people to be needed where once there were whole teams; think of self-checkouts in a supermarket, all monitored by a single individual, instead of having one person employed per checkout.
It’s an issue that may hit us hard, but it’s largely being ignored except for the debate around one proposed solution: Universal Basic Income (UBI). The idea is that instead of paying the various different benefits that are on offer today, with their considerable administration costs, the government will instead pay every adult a standard basic income. It won’t be a huge amount – probably just enough to live off in the cheaper parts of the country – but people will receive it regardless of whether or not they’re in work.
Proponents say that the money raised from increased automation will result in a higher tax take, which ought to be redistributed. Introducing UBI means that the labour market will be more flexible; no one will be stuck in a dead-end job because they can’t afford to quit, and no one should end up in a position where they go hungry. Instead, UBI will offer a financial cushion to everyone, whether they want to try launching a creative career or open their own business – ultimately allowing people to realise their potential and creating wealth above and beyond its (sizeable) costs.
Opponents say primarily that the maths doesn’t add up; that the government cannot possibly afford to pay everyone enough of a basic income for the idea to work, and paying people less could mean subsidising people who are wealthy and able to work at a cost to, for instance, the disabled or elderly. They fear it would exacerbate inequality or leave the country’s finances in a dire state.
5. How should we solve the housing crisis?
One of the most pressing debates for young people in the UK today is around the housing crisis. Especially in the south-east of England, housing – both to buy and to rent – is becoming increasingly unaffordable. The average house price is now nearly eight times the average salary across the UK, which is more than double what it was just twenty years ago. Nor does the UK have a tradition of renting that could soften the blow; renting is also expensive, and tenants have significantly fewer rights than in countries where renting is the norm.
It’s reasonably widely acknowledged that this represents a problem, but the proposed solutions vary. Some have identified the issue as being about the transfer of wealth between generations, and housing minister Gavin Barwell has suggested that grandparents should leave their money to their grandchildren, not their children, in their Wills, to help deal with inter-generational inequality.
More often, the problem is identified as one of supply and demand; to help fix the demand, it’s argued, we should increase housing supply by significantly increasing building, for instance by relaxing restrictions about building on the green belt. The central challenge is that, encouraged by successive governments, many people have made their house the central pillar of their investments. If housing prices go down, younger people will be more easily able to afford a place to live, but at the cost of some older generations losing their savings. It’s a political challenge that if solved will reap dividends, but whether it can be solved at all remains in question.
Image credits: Edinburgh; exit sign; edinburgh street; corbyn; till; housing crisis; palace of westminster.