The politics of Brexit will have far-reaching consequences for Britain – UK in a changing Europe

Dr Helen Parr
Senior Lecturer in International Relations, SPIRE

Source: The politics of Brexit will have far-reaching consequences for Britain – UK in a changing Europe

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Yesterday’s by-elections weren’t all about Brexit

Dr Christopher Huggins
Teaching Fellow in European Politics

Conventional wisdom is that opposition parties perform well and gain ground in by-elections while governing parties don’t. In Stoke Central (which featured two SPIRE alumni as candidates – Jack Brereton (Conservative) and Gareth Snell (Labour)), Labour managed to retain their seat, albeit with a reduced majority. The Conservative’s win in Copeland, however, was nothing short of a disaster for Labour in a constituency they have consistently held since the 1980s. It is the first by-election gain by a governing party since 1982.

There has been a temptation since the EU referendum to view electoral contests primarily through the lens of Brexit. Brexit, it is argued, is the new divide in British politics. Voters are aligned to remain or leave. There are remain constituencies and there are leave constituencies. This narrative was present in coverage in the run up to yesterday’s by-elections – to some extent in Copeland and to a large extent in Stoke. Media coverage was keen to highlight that both constituencies voted leave in the referendum. With around 70% voting for ‘leave’ in June’s EU referendum, Stoke attained the status of “the Brexit capital of Britain”, making it a prime target for the new UKIP leader, keen to reach out to disaffected Labour voters. Candidates were initially assessed not on their broader appeal to the local electorate, but whether they supported remain or leave in the referendum, whether they would respect the result of the referendum and so on. It’s a narrative that worked well with the Richmond by-election in December 2016, but cannot be applied so readily to yesterday’s by-elections.

Brexit no doubt played a role yesterday, but the result in Stoke in particular challenges the simplistic narrative that constituencies and voters can be neatly divided into “remain” and “leave”. Instead, questions can be raised about a range of other possible factors which have played a role.

For example, what impact has the popularity of party leaders had? Labour’s problems arguably run much deeper than its current leadership, but Jeremy Corbyn is by no means a popular leader. In the latest YouGov poll only 15% think he is best for Prime Minister, compared to 49% for Theresa May. Following her election last night, the Conservative victor Trudy Harrison was explicitly clear in attributing her success in what had been a long-term Labour seat to the fact that voters in Copeland simply felt that “Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t represent them”. This was despite the future of the local NHS hospital being one of the key issues locally, something Labour traditionally should have been able to capitalize on.

What about the quality of the candidates themselves? In Stoke, both Snell and Nuttall were the focus of significant media attention. Snell received significant criticism following the revelation of his less than squeaky clean social media history. And Nuttall too for his claims about Hillsborough and his potential breach of electoral law by failing to list his actual address on the nomination forms. Snell was able to draw on his local connections to Stoke, while Nuttall was never going to be able to shift his status as an opportunistic parachute candidate.

What about the local campaigns? The Conservatives put a lot of effort into the on-the-ground campaign to win Copeland, and it clearly paid off. Labour similarly had a heavy presence on the ground in Stoke, while UKIP’s efforts there were hardly a model for an efficient party campaign machinery in action. Again, Nuttall’s failure to list his correct address on his nomination form, along with his absence from some local hustings events are illustrations of this.

And what about the issues that resonate with local people (all politics is local after all)? Much has been made of the importance of the nuclear industry as a major employer in Copeland. To what extent did the current Labour leadership’s perceived ambivalence and lack of commitment to nuclear play on voters’ minds there? In Stoke, despite the high leave vote in June’s referendum, Brexit barely got a mention in the local campaign. Rather the performance of the local hospital, the future of other local public services and a general dissatisfaction with Westminster politics were key issues on the doorstep. This was even recognized by UKIP. Nuttall was keen to point out in hustings (those that he attended) that this by-election wasn’t about Brexit, for example.

Yes, certain areas voted predominately to leave, and others to remain. But yesterday’s by-elections show us the picture is far more complex than this simple characterization would have us believe. Leave vs. remain becomes rather more murky when you throw in the dynamics of party competition, for example. For those of us that study politics, this reaffirms the complexity of electoral contests, and the need to consider a range of local and national factors that have the potential to influence voter behaviour and the outcome of elections. Brexit and the proportion of leave/remain voters in any given area may be one of a number of explanatory factors explaining electoral outcomes, but it is important not to lose sight of local context.

Dr Christopher Huggins is a Teaching Fellow in European Politics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment at Keele University. His research focuses on the politics of the European Union and British politics. He has an  emphasis on the Europeanization of sub-national government and how local authorities actively engage with the European Union. More about Chris’ research and teaching can be found here.

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Article 50 vote shows Brexit is about politics, not Britain’s future

Helen Parr
Senior Lecturer in International Relations

The vote in the House of Commons on whether the British government can trigger Article 50 has been revealing. It showed just how much the current Brexit debate is cast not by the economic and international interests of the UK, but by British (and in fact, mainly English) party politics.

Public opinion has always been ambivalent about EU membership. The British public have generally been willing to follow the government of the day on the UK’s relationship with the Union. And we can see that it very much still is.

Britain’s departure from the European Union is all about the Conservative party. The decision to hold a referendum in the first place was party political – former Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt, monumentally failed, to silence Conservative eurosceptics and to quash UKIP. The Conservative government’s reaction to the result was a rapid exercise in party score settling, ending with the appointment of Theresa May – herself a quiet remainer – to the most difficult mantle any prime minister has inherited lately.

May’s policy has been, in effect, a continuation of Cameron’s – to prioritise the wishes of the eurosceptic right. Her first goal, therefore, is to reduce immigration. While she must hope for a Brexit deal that will give some access to the single market alongside restrictions on freedom of movement, her posture suggests Britain’s economy will play second fiddle to her ability to tell voters she has a deal on immigration and Britain has freed itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The politics of Brexit have centred first on the statement that the referendum result was the will of the people, and that the government’s duty is to carry it out, and second on the continued “in-out” tenor of the debate.

Eurosceptics have regarded any legal or parliamentary scrutiny as an attempt to “stop Brexit”. So although British politics should have been transformed by the outcome of the referendum, and debate should have shifted to how to exit and the difficulties this might entail, it has in fact continued along the referendum campaign’s “for or against” lines.

Where was Labour?

The supreme court judged that the government could not trigger Article 50 without parliamentary support. The government tabled a short bill, and parliamentarians tabled amendments, including whether to hold a second referendum, and to guarantee unilaterally the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Each of the amendments was defeated, and the bill overall passed with a large majority. Why was this?

Conservative party discipline has been impressive. Only the long-time europhile Ken Clarke defied his party whips on the final division. For the Conservative remainers the alternatives seem worse. They are unsure whether it is better to oppose outright or to find ways better to scrutinise. Stickling too much now might reduce their influence in the party later, when the terms of any deal become clearer. Most have to concede that May has played her political cards well. The Conservatives also like the fact that they are more united than Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, meanwhile, remains unclear about its position towards Brexit. Corbyn has said Britain should retain “tariff free” access to the EU – a position which does not address Britain’s relationship to the single market – and has at various times declared his support for free movement and his willingness to restrict it in some circumstances. Corbyn also wants to protect rights for workers.

It is difficult to discern whether Labour’s Brexit position is born of pragmatism, or whether it simply reflects Corbyn’s own long rooted ambivalence to Britain’s participation in European integration. Many MPs represent constituencies which voted to leave, and a constitutional crisis now would probably not serve Labour’s longer term interests. Supporting the bill now might allow greater scrutiny and say later on.


Corbyn imposed a three-line whip to support the Brexit bill, but 52 of Labour’s 229 MPs defied that whip in the notification of withdrawal division. Of those rebels, four, including Labour’s business spokesman Clive Lewis, resigned from the shadow cabinet.

The Article 50 bill will now pass to the House of Lords, where peers are unlikely to place strong obstacles to its passage. In all probability, May will trigger Article 50, thus beginning negotiations with the EU on Britain’s departure, by the end of March.

Politically, therefore, May has outmanoeuvred the opposition thus far. However, the politics of Brexit may now get tougher as the stage widens beyond the parties, and as, presumably, debate has to range beyond the familiar “in-out” lines. Negotiations with the EU are likely to be anything but plain sailing, and as negotiations progress, the ambiguities in Britain’s negotiating aspirations will become exposed.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon feels that May has ignored Scottish concerns, and may well move towards a second referendum on Scottish independence. The issue of the Irish border was not dealt with convincingly in the government’s white paper.

The government has conceded that MPs can vote on the terms of the final deal, but also made clear that the vote will be on a “take it or leave it” basis. It does not intend that the vote could peel back whatever it is that has been agreed.

The future, therefore, is still uncertain: May’s deal with the EU could be anything from membership-lite (unlikely) to a settlement that not only changes Britain’s position in world politics, but also gradually transforms traditional party politics, and the continued existence, in its current form, of the UK.

The Conversation

Dr Helen Parr is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of Postgraduate Teaching in the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment at Keele University. Her research is on post-1945 British history, particularly Britain’s relations with Europe, Britain in the Cold War, British-French relations, and British nuclear weapons policy.

Originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Brexit, Article 50 and the Supreme Court ruling: how the government made its own life more difficult

Dr Christopher Huggins
Teaching Fellow in European Politics


Yesterday the Supreme Court delivered its judgement on the government’s appeal in the Article 50 case in what was billed as one of the most significant constitutional law cases in generations. The verdict, of course, has wide ranging constitutional law implications. But there are also significant political implications for how the government will be able to proceed with Brexit.

It’s important to note that for all the hype around Brexit and the EU referendum, the primary concern of the case was a matter of constitutional law. Indeed, Brexit and the referendum barely got a mention in the hearing in December. The verdict reaffirms the long-established constitutional principle that it is parliament that makes the law and that government cannot use its executive powers (the Prerogative) to change the law without parliament’s authorization. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and as such the government has no other option but to accept the verdict. In this way the Supreme Court has successfully performed its role as an independent check on executive authority, something which should be valued by all those who support the basic principles of democracy. The verdict should also be celebrated by those who campaigned during the EU referendum on the message that British laws should be made by a sovereign British parliament. In the words of legal commentator David Allen Green, it is evidence that “the constitution is working”.

In its response to the verdict, the government said it was “disappointed”, but it would nevertheless respect the outcome and get on with the job of delivering Brexit, by seeking authorization from parliament in the form of a short bill. Unlike with the High Court verdict, the government was also quick to pre-empt a hostile press reaction and re-affirm its respect for an independent judiciary. The government’s disappointment, however, is self-inflicted. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the case was that it could have been avoided entirely. There were two missed opportunities here.

Firstly, the legal challenge was launched due to ambiguity in 2015 European Union Referendum Act. While the Act permitted the referendum to take place, it says absolutely nothing about how the government or parliament should respond to the result. Had the Act bound parliament and the government to the result and, in the event of a leave vote, authorized the government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, then the courts’ involvement in Brexit (or at least the triggering of Article 50) could have been avoided. Indeed it says something about the complacency of the Cameron government and parliament, and the fact neither expected a leave vote, that such provisions were omitted.

Secondly, had Theresa May simply accepted the decision of the High Court in November 2016 and delivered the (still to be revealed) short bill authorizing the government to invoke Article 50, then the government would probably have the necessary authorization by now, and would be on course to meet its March 2017 deadline. By appealing the High Court’s decision rather than “getting on with the job of Brexit”, the government has frustrated and delayed its own progress, and made it more difficult to meet its self-imposed March 2017 deadline for Article 50 notification.

No article 50 notification can take place until an Act of Parliament authorizing it is passed. Any attempt by the government to notify before this would be unlawful. The government insists it can still meet its March 2017 timetable, but its job would have been much easier had it introduced such a bill in November. Back then there was more political momentum behind Brexit, at least among parliamentarians eager to respect the ‘will of the people’. The form of the bill (long or short, simple or with bells and whistles attached) is up to parliament, but the government could have used this momentum to rush the bill through and ensure it broadly reflected its own wishes.

The likelihood of parliament rejecting an Article 50 trigger bill outright is incredibly low. But parliamentarians of all political colours will now seek to seek to add amendments or bind the government to certain conditions, such as the publication of a Brexit plan in the form of a White Paper (a provision the government has just accepted). This is especially the case since Theresa May’s speech last week outlining a 12-point (but still vague) plan for Brexit, which has not been universally accepted by MPs. This all risks delaying the bill’s passage, adding to the government’s already heavy workload and binding the government to any provisions that are enacted. In effect the government risks losing control of the Brexit agenda. And for those seeking clarity on what Brexit means, it has the potential to create more confusion and uncertainty.

The other implication of the Supreme Court ruling goes beyond Brexit and the EU referendum. That is in re-affirming that parliament is sovereign and that the government cannot independently make, unmake or amend the law, the ruling is used as a point of reference for other cases where executive power is challenged. This, potentially, limits the scope of government authority. Therefore in appealing, and losing, the government has potentially shot itself in the foot and limited its own capacity of act independently of parliament.

So, in appealing the High Court verdict the government has deliberately delayed its own Brexit plans, made it more difficult to get Article 50 notification on its own terms and, potentially, set a precedent which limits government authority and capacity for years to come. As stated above, all of this could have been avoided. In appealing, the government made a gamble which did not pay off.
Dr Christopher Huggins is a Teaching Fellow in European Politics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment at Keele University. His research focuses on the politics of the European Union and British politics. He has an  emphasis on the Europeanization of sub-national government and how local authorities actively engage with the European Union. More about Chris’ research and teaching can be found here.

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#spicerfacts: how the White House’s relationship with the press will play out

Jon Herbert

Senior Lecturer in Politics

Journalists would have anticipated the first press conference of the Trump presidency with some trepidation. Not only had his briefing at Trump Tower as president-elect been something of a shambles as Trump excoriated some journalists and ignored others, but the whole election campaign had been traumatic for many. Reporters had been submitted to ritual humiliation at Trump rallies, ushered through baying crowds to be labelled “liars” and “disgusting” by a candidate who did not seem overly burdened by the concept of truth himself.

But campaigning is different from governing. Journalists, who had endured a storm of criticism from Trump’s transition team, were hoping for a transformation of campaign Trump into a more presidential Trump – or perhaps a press liaison operation sympathetic to the press’ needs.

The first press “briefing” from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, delivered the day after Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States made it clear that this transformation has not happened. In a six-minute tirade, Spicer told journalists why their coverage of the inauguration had been wrong, told them what they should be reporting and left the stage with no opportunities for questions and answers.

Any impression that a mutual trust might be nurtured between presidency and media – or even that a deal for mutual benefit might be negotiated – was shattered. Journalists’ worst fears, articulated widely and openly during the transition, are now realised and both sides are now digging in for an extended battle.

Written out

From Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency at the turn of the 20th century onward, presidents have traditionally nurtured a relationship with journalists. Franklin Roosevelt held briefings in the Oval Office and Jack Kennedy traded on his own journalistic experiences in talking to the press. The relationship was symbiotic and mutually beneficial; presidencies broadcast their messages to the public and the media had stories and pictures to run.

But the relationship has soured since the 1970s – and the Trump presidency may come to represent the logical conclusion of a half-century’s development in presidential relations with the media.

The disillusionment of the media with the presidency is well-documented. The Watergate scandal and misinformation over the Vietnam War caused journalists to examine their assumptions about the trustworthiness of the country’s commander-in-chief.

But the media still needs the presidency. The presidency, on the other hand has long struggled to wriggle free of the media’s grasp. Frustrated by increasingly negative coverage from mainstream outlets, presidents pull away from the media over their term, offering fewer press conferences as their term develops. Obama’s administration built a reputation for unusual levels of secrecy due to its refusal to release information in response to press requests. Worse, administration threats to prosecute journalists for not revealing their sources permanently tarnished Obama’s standing with the media and generated many hostile stories.

During George W. Bush’s administration, journalist Ryan Lizza offered the term “pressless presidency” to capture the Bush team’s assessment of the press, not as a Fourth Estate with a legitimate role to check governmental and presidential power, but as just another interest group to be serviced.

The holy grail now for an administration is to bypass the hard questions and unforgiving judgements of the Washington media to reach the people directly. Each new technology seems to offer this potential. Obama attempted to bypass the Washington press corps through use of Reddit and YouTube, while Trump has done more than most to cut loose while calculating that he can use other means to communicate – Twitter being his favourite medium.


US vs them

Instead of working with the media, Trump has made it integral to his core message: his anti-establishment status. Trump’s rhetoric relies upon simple oppositions – and the media has been particularly important in this. In Trump’s populist rhetoric the media have become part of giant conspiracy of politicians, business and media working against the interests of the American people. And the press makes an excellent target – public trust in the media has dropped precipitously.

Declining trust in the news media.
Gallup, CC BY

Usually there is something of a “honeymoon period” as the two sides develop their relationships and work out a basis of cooperation. Both the incoming administration and the media usually focus on appointments and leading policy proposals. But instead of trying to build that relationship for mutual advantage early on, Trump’s team is launching a full frontal assault on the media’s credibility. The Trump team is “pressless” from the start.

Not only is Trump to be pressless, then, but the logic of this position extends to discrediting the media as a competitor in setting the agenda or even describing reality. When Spicer highlights the delayed nomination of Mike Pompeo as CIA director and tells the press: “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering,” the attempt to control what is considered news is obvious. But this position extends to portraying the media as a malevolent force. Accusing the media of “dishonesty” allows the administration to claim a new role.

To quote Spicer: “We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.” The administration has appointed itself the guardian of truth against the evildoers of the press. Theatrical denials of the media’s legitimacy suit the administration very well: much as Trump’s tweets have done before, Spicer’s press briefing made the tension between the media and the new administration the main news story. The administration portrays itself as the insurgency against the establishment. As long as the media continue to run the conflict stories, Trump will remain happy to trigger them.

High-risk strategy

But this approach carries substantial risks. As a rocky transition focused on Putin’s influence over the election and Trump’s conflicts of interest proved, the new administration has not found a way to control the media agenda. Trump’s familiar campaign technique of picking fights over Twitter has served to distract from the worst stories but has not refocused attention on the presidency’s priorities.

The stories in each policy area are of uncertainty and confusion around the administration’s direction and the overall image of Trump’s presidency has been damaged from the start.


So far, the media has expressed substantial doubt that the Trump administration has a clear direction or clarity over priorities, a claim reinforced by Trump’s own tendency to make bold, incredible and contradictory statements. Attacking the press is a serious – and unforced – error that will generate negative coverage. Trump and Spicer’s calculation, that the new president’s support can endure a relentless stream of negative stories, is an extraordinary gamble. It relies on Trump’s supporters resisting the influence of negative media coverage, while the administration communicates with them directly.

Without doubt, there is much to suggest that some partisans will remain loyal to their president amid media criticism. News accessed only through selective social media “bubbles” is likely to reinforce this effect. However, experience suggests that Republicans will not be blindly loyal. As Nixon and George W. Bush discovered, Republicans can turn on their own.

As the administration’s credibility falls, the same rhetoric from Trump blaming media demons for Americans’ perceived plight will sound less like a promise of conflict, victory and transformation and more like excuse-making in the face of under-achievement. Trump attacks on those merely trying to report on his presidency will come to look like the product of a paranoid mindset.

The Conversation

Dr Jon Herbert is a Senior Lecturer in Politics in SPIRE, and is the Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning for the Faculty oh Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Herbert’s research centres on the American presidency. More about Jon’s research and teaching can be found here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Eurosceptics’ Moment

Dr Helen Parr, Senior Lecturer in International Relations is a co-winner of the 2016 Hennessy Prize for essay writing on British politics, awarded by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London. Helen shares this prize with Professor Thomas Osborne of University of Bristol.

Dr. Parr’s essay, ‘The Eurosceptics’ moment’, argues that membership of the EEC/EU was at the core of Britain’s national life, and that therefore the process of Brexit will have negative impacts. Because of this, it is time for Eurosceptics who were vocal during the referendum to step up to the responsibility that came with their victory in order to maintain the integrity of the British values central to their campaign.

The Hennessy Prize is named in honour of the crossbench peer and constitutional historian Lord Hennessy It is an open competition awarded to the best essay concerning British politics submitted by a British academic. The prize is funded by the Committee of University Chairs and will be awarded by Lord Hennessy at a reception at the House of Lords. The Mile End Institute connects research, policy-making and public debate to deepen and challenge the understanding of British politics, governance and public policy.

Dr. Parr’s essay was published on the Mile End Institute blog and will be published online by Prospect Magazine. The full essay can be accessed here:

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Political Development Comes To…America?

Dr. Rebecca Richards
Lecturer in International Relations

This week, I, like much of the rest of the world, have been forced to grapple with a sense of shock as I watch the post-election events shaking America. One the one hand, I am unbelievably ashamed that my country of birth appears to have regressed to social decay and violence that we are only just starting to get to grips with in post-Brexit Britain. On the other hand, I am also incredibly proud to see so many people, especially young people, peacefully protesting to say “this is not right.” So as I watch what is unfolding in the US, I watch with a sense of shock, and with trepidation as the best most of us can come with when trying to ponder what comes next is “we do not know.” I am not watching with surprise, though, because we have been able to see this coming for a long time.


Early analysis of Trump’s electoral win is focusing on economic arguments – the Rust Belt, a historically Democratic area, went to Trump, with many maintaining that it is due to the decline in manufacturing jobs and a lack of alternative employment opportunities. There is some truth to that as global economic changes and demands have seen many richer countries shifting away from industrialised labour in favour of more skilled or technological industries. Thus, those working in the once prosperous car factories of Detroit or the steelworks in Pittsburgh are facing uncertainties, and those uncertainties are both a powerful political motivation as well as something that is easy to invoke for the purposes of political mobilisation. In other words, they have genuine concerns about their future, and those concerns are easy to pick up and use as a tool in an election campaign. Trump did this masterfully by invoking, and possibly creating, a fear of what is to come.

Early analysis of exit polls, though, shows that the main core of Trump’s electoral support did not come from the low income workers in the US, but rather middle to upper middle class whites across America. Much of his support came from the old Republican base, and he was able to bring enough of the working class Democratic base in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania onto his side to win enough Electoral College votes to secure a seat in the White House. As my colleague Jon Herbert has pointed out, preventing this swing was not helped by having Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate. Yes, Hillary Clinton is an unbelievably accomplished and experienced public servant. However, she is also very much disliked by many, including many Democrats. She may have made a remarkable president, but she did not make a good candidate.

Still, though, Clinton won the popular vote by what would be considered in other elections a large margin.In those key areas where she lost the state and then did not gain the Electoral College votes, Trump’s majority was incredibly slight – 68,000 in Pennsylvania, 27,000 in Wisconsin, and just 12,000 in Michigan. In other words, just over another 100,000 votes in those states together and the outcome of the election would have been different (and thanks to Dr. Chris Huggins for helping point that out). Trump may have shocked us, but he did not win with a resounding victory, no matter how much he wants to claim that he won it easily and it “was big”. He will enter the White House as the least popular presidential candidate the US has ever seen, not to mention the least popular candidate to win the election. He is undoubtedly facing a difficult road, and not only because he appears wholly unprepared for the job.

There are a lot of questions to be answered about this election, and there are a lot of predictions of what comes next. In democracies, majorities are rarely ever stable, and it is here that the ‘political game’ in the US will really become apparent as Trump (should) balances his minority win not only with a majority electorate, but also within his own divided base. Congressional politics will also come into play as members of Congress, up for re-election again in two years, work to figure out how to operate in their new reality. The Democrats are potentially still very much in the game, but there will be soul searching to do as they try to reclaim those votes that they lost. And these are only the questions of ‘what is next’ pertaining to the American system itself. When we look at broader questions about the future of democracy and what this win means for the international system, we encounter a whole new pack of complexities and potential consequences that must be understood.

It is certain that the analysis of Trump’s win will still be coming out many years from now. Many, like my colleague Bulent Gokay, will make the argument that together with Brexit, this election is a sign of the death of the neo-liberal capitalist world order. I think there is some validity in some of that, but I’m not entirely convinced it can explain all of the forces at work. Some will lament that this is the end of democracy. For me, that is a very premature lament and it is one that could cause a dangerous overreaction of an incited progressive left.

No, it is not the end of democracy. Yes, economic systems and practices have failed large numbers of people, and yes, people in Western states are increasingly, and detrimentally, retreating from civic life. Government has not always worked for them, or at least that is what they perceive. But voter turnout in both the UK and the US were high this year, so at least that component of democracy is firmly intact and people are having their say. Democracy may have returned a result that we do not like, and with Trump’s bombastic style and apparent disregard for the rules it is easy to see what people are fearing an authoritarian US. I would be lying if I said that was not in the back of my mind as well. But returning an unfavourable result or the election of an ‘unconventional,’ and frankly socially unacceptable, candidate does not hail the death of the system. Indeed, these results demonstrate that many who have felt ‘left behind’ by politics have made themselves heard. We may be witnessing a ‘blip’ in progressive politics, but not the death of democracy. Rather, what we are seeing is yet another step in a long history of political development that is a regular, and very healthy, process. For those of us who study political development, especially within what is commonly (yet is outdated terminology) referred to as the ‘Third World’, this process is all too apparent.

No country ever stops building or growing. And that’s because politics (the abstract system, not the parties themselves) is constantly changing. When change becomes apparent it can be incredibly turbulent, but that is because politics rests not only above but also within society; it is a structuring force but it is also a social force. Social change can be difficult and can bring backlashes against the redistribution of power and privilege from those who are still privileged and secure, but feel that they are losing power. And power is a tough thing to give up. Progressive change is perhaps the toughest of all, simply because it works to disrupt inequalities in social, and therefore, political power. When you take the power away from the people who have always had it and redistribute at least some of it amongst those who have been marginalized, those entrenched feelings of entitlement for those who have been dominant are tough to eliminate.

We see this all over the world, especially in countries where democracy is new. But from those countries, we also know that progress is not a straight line and can even be regressive at times. When we see that, we do not immediately lament the death of democracy. Instead, we say “the really important thing is what comes next.” The what comes next does not always come quickly in new democracies, but in many, the forward motion begins again and the system is stronger for it. It is when other forces come into play – damaging social forces, weak institutions, the lack of a civil society – that we begin to fear for the security of the democratic system. What we look for there is not the outcome of one election, but rather the erosion of the political and social institutions that make a democracy viable. And we are not (yet) seeing that in the United States, despite numerous observations of change.

A set back is not the end. Rather, it is likely a sign of some form of progress being made. But as always, the really important thing is what comes next.

It is incredibly important to ask the big questions of ‘Why did this happen?’ and ‘What can this tell us?’ For that reason, the social sciences, and especially International Relations and Politics, will be incredibly important in the years to come. We need to understand the systems of power that surround us both in our countries and in the wider world. We cannot focus on the ‘what if’ and the ‘what’s next’ without looking at the bigger empirical and theoretical pictures. It would be irresponsible for us to do otherwise. But we in IR and Politics also cannot do it alone, and it is for that reason that I was incredibly glad to see commentary from Mark Featherstone, our colleague in Sociology at Keele. We need to understand how power shifts impact daily lives, and a mutli-disciplinary approach is important for that. It is important for not only understanding and explaining, but it is also important for reacting and directing what comes next.

It is important for ensuring that our regressive blip does not become an insurmountable speed bump – something we have seen time and again in newer democracies. Our Western liberal democracies have the political and social institutions that have the strength to act as a check on potential authoritarian power, whether that check is direct or not. But still, we must understand this regressive blip in order to address it.

We must also not only question, but also confront, dissatisfaction based on loss of (largely social and economic) power. We must confront it because, as we’ve seen, the invocation of that fear can be ‘bigly‘ damaging (sorry, I simply could not resist). It also resides primarily with people who fear what they could lose, rather than mourning what they have already lost. We saw with the Brexit vote that many of the most ardent anti-immigration areas in the country are those those that do not have high numbers of immigrants. In the US, invoking fear of economic loss so recently experienced with the 2008 economic collapse within relatively well-off demographic groupings is a very useful political tool, and one that allows for a vote of self-preservation for a candidate that is otherwise socially and politically unacceptable. Societal shifts stemming from legislative attempts to reduce the marginalization of minority groups demonstrated a shift of power away from straight, white, Christian Americans. An out of control segment of the media did not help – one that decried the election of a black president as the ‘End of White America’, declaring that president to be a race-baiter while speaking to what was once a fringe segment that believes that the mere existence of a black man in society is all that is needed to be a damaging threat. And a mainstream media so fearful of lost revenues that they have foregone their responsibility as the ‘fourth estate’ is a tragic reality of this election.

Damage has been done, but that does not mean it is permanent.

We must understand this and we must confront these concerns. But democracy allows for that, and as long as that occurs we should not lose hope of returning to our progressive path forward. And as that happens, we can look at this and realise that democracy, no matter now old or established, is not immune from the need to constantly adapt and adjust, and that political development never stops.


Dr Rebecca Richards is a Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on statebuilding and political development. She is especially interested in how political socialisation impacts upon democratic transitions and the processes of political and institutional change.

Posted in American Politics, Elections, International Relations, Politics, US election | Tagged , | 2 Comments