DEATH CASTS PALL OVER THE DEBATE

Even before the Manchester attack, the campaign had not gone as expected, writes Raymond Whitaker

The British general election on June 8 was supposed to be about Brexit. It did not turn out that way. On the evening of May 22 a suicide bomber attacked the departing audience at a pop concert in Manchester, killing 22 people and wounding dozens more.

In the wake of any terrorist incident, there are questions. Was intelligence overlooked? Could the attack have been prevented? Do the police and security services have the resources they need to keep the public safe? In the midst of an election campaign, however, they acquired fresh stridency, not to say virulence.

Campaigning was suspended after the atrocity. But the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), which created the anti-immigration, isolationist climate for last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, decided to resume a day earlier than other parties. It caused indignation by saying the Prime Minister, Theresa May, shared responsibility for the bombing, because in her previous post as Home Secretary she had supported cuts in funding for the police and armed forces.

In vain did experts explain that suicide attackers were the hardest to stop, and that it can take as many as 30 agents to follow one suspect for 24 hours. No amount of money will guarantee complete security, though the authorities will have to examine how and where Salman Abedi, the Manchester-born suicide bomber from a Libyan background, became radicalised and who helped him. The answers, however, were not expected to emerge until the election was long over. And in the interim the attack helped May, because it diverted attention from a near-derailment of her campaign.


THE ASIAN CONNECTION

By Ashis Ray

It is 125 years since the first Asian was elected to Britain’s House of Commons. Dadabhai Naoroji, a Liberal, arrived in 1892, representing Finsbury Central constituency in London, and remained a member until 1895.

In the Commons just dissolved for the June 8 election, there were 24 MPs of Asian descent out of 650. For the first time, the ethnicities of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were all represented in the ‘mother of parliaments’.

It could be argued that British Asians have slightly punched below their weight: they are 5.4 per cent of the population, but hold only 3.7 per cent of parliamentary seats. However, in recent years they have reachedCabinetlevel.

Naoroji, the pioneer, was followed by Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree, a Conservative, who won Bethnal Green North East, also in London. He served from 1895 to 1906.Then came the intriguing Shapurji Saklatvala, a former Tata employee and a cousin of the third chairman of the Group, Nowroji Saklatvala. In 1922, he won Battersea North, again in London,for the Communist Party of Great Britain. He and a colleague were the first Communists ever elected to the British Parliament. Saklatvala lost the next year, only to be returned in 1924for a full five-year term in the Commons. Defeated in 1929, he remains London’s only Communist MP.

The first three Asian MPs were all Parsis. It was 58 years before another politician of Asian extraction reached the Commons: Keith Vaz, born in Aden and of Goan descent, was elected in 1987 for the Labour Party from Leicester East, a constituency he has represented ever since.

As for attaining ministerial rank, there was an equally long interval between the first Asian to do so and the next. Lord Satyendra Prasanno Sinha of Raipur –admittedly not an MP – was made parliamentary under-secretary of state for India in 1919. The next was Vaz, 80 years later, who rose a step higher. He was appointed minister of state for Europe in Tony Blair’s government. Others followed, such as Sadiq Khan, now mayor of London, but it was 2010 before the first person of Asian origin reached Cabinet rank, and she was a woman.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – again, admittedly not an MP – was fast-tracked through the Lords and into the Cabinet by David Cameron when she became chair of the Conservative Party, but she resigned in 2014 on the issue of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s Israel-Palestine policy.The same year, the first MP attained Cabinet level.

Sajid Javid, like Warsi of Pakistani descent, was Conservative Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 2014 to 2015, then Business Secretary. Last year he was appointed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He was joined by Priti Patel, whom Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, chose as International Development Secretary.


The Prime Minister seemed destined for a huge majority when the election was first called. Her strategy was a personality contest between herself and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, so much so that election material referred to ‘Theresa May’s Team’ rather than the Conservative Party. Though Corbyn had attracted thousands of fervent supporters to the Labour Party, whotwice backed him as leader, his hard-left approach alienated a majority of his MPs, the right-wing press and voters at large, leaving him far behind in opinion polls.

FRACTURED: A Brexit-themed mural by street artist Banksy, spotted in Dover
FRACTURED: A Brexit-themed mural by street artist Banksy, spotted in Dover

May’s wholesale embrace of Brexit since arriving in Downing Street had drained away support away from Ukip, which took many votes from the Conservatives in the 2015 election. So in the early stages there was little reason to expect anything but a thumping Conservative victory, despite the Prime Minister’s robotic campaigning style, in which she endlessly repeated the slogan that only she could provide the ‘strong and stable’ government Britain needed as it negotiated its divorce from Europe. But elections are unpredictable, and over-confidence is dangerous, as she was to discover.

A proposal to deal with the mounting cost of care for Britain’s ever-growing elderly population by taking the value of their homes into account was attacked as a ‘dementia tax’, and not only by the opposition. May’s tendency to keep decisions to a tight groupof advisers caused resentment among senior members of her own party, who found themselves having to defend a measureabout which they had not been consulted. After a brief but intense burst of criticism of the proposal, there was a hasty retreat, causing the Prime Minister to be mocked as ‘weak and wobbly’ rather than ‘strong and stable’.


ONCE MORE UNTO THE POLLS

After the 2010 general election in Britain, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government pushed through a law fixing parliamentary terms at five years. No longer would it be up to the Prime Minister alone to decide when the next election would be held.

Few could have expected at that time that by 10pm on June 8 this year, Britons would have gone to the polls four times – five times, if they lived in Scotland. The first vote, in 2011, was a referendum on changing the voting system to proportional representation, demanded by the Lib Dems as their price for joining the Conservatives in government. Interest and turnout was low, and the measure was heavily defeated.

Smarting from what they considered a broken Tory promise not to campaign against the change, the coalition’s junior partners blocked another referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, which the Conservative right and the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), had been demanding for years. But in 2014 Scottish nationalists got the vote on independence that they had been seeking just as long – and lost.

Ahead of the 2015 election, the first under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, opinion polls were predicting another five years of coalition. But under Britain’s increasingly unrepresentative electoral system, David Cameron’s Conservatives unexpectedly won a narrow majority with a little over a third of the vote. The Liberal Democrats crashed to a mere eight seats, despite having nearly a million more votes than the Scottish Nationalists, who gained 56. As for Ukip, which won over a million more votes than the Lib Dems, it ended up with a single MP.

If these results made many feel that their votes did not count, they expressed their resentment with a vengeance when the Brexit referendum was at last held. That brought Theresa May into office. To seek her own mandate, she persuaded the House of Commons to vote by more than two thirds to hold an early election, as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act required – and the Conservative manifesto promises to repeal the Act if she wins.

– Raymond Whitaker


Playing on personality was backfiring. With the Conservatives offering as little detail as possible about their plans, and implying further austerity in what they did disclose, May’s popularity was slipping back from its previously stratospheric heights. Corbyn, meanwhile, was recovering some ground as voters realised he was less crazed than his cariacature in the right-wing media. Labour’s old-fashioned socialist programme, heavy on nationalisation and public spending, began to look more attractive to some. Just after the Manchester attack, one poll showed Labour only 2 per cent behind the Tories.

The bombingthrew the emphasis on to security, with May appearing in Downing Street to announce that Britain’s threat level had been raised from ‘severe’ to ‘critical’. She was accused in some quarters of politicising the event, with the deployment of soldiers on British streets being criticised as shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. Within a week, however, the threat level was back at ‘severe’ – on the independent advice of security experts, May stressed – and soldiers were returning to barracks.

A return to earlier campaign themes seemed likely until Corbyn, with the calm certainty in his own rightness that infuriates as many in his party as it inspires, decided it was the moment to argue that Britain’s interventions in foreign conflicts frequently created ‘ungoverned spaces’ in which terrorists could flourish. The Labour leader rightly pointed out that senior security experts, even certain Conservative politicians, had said similar things, but in the midst of an election it was a gift to his enemies, who claimed that he was ‘blaming Britain’ for the Manchester attack. Personality politics was back with a vegeance.

If the campaign had shown one thing, however, it was that Theresa May is not a natural politician. Her awkwardness in interviews and encounters with the public explained the strategy of placing her in front of carefully-selected groups of the party faithful, and refusing to debate with other leaders on TV. Rather than talking about security, on which Labour always struggles for public trust, Corbyn would have been better advised to return to social policy, where the Conservatives had conspicuously slipped up.

But what about Brexit? Labour’s problem was that most of its MPs supported Remain – as did May, though so discreetly as to be practically invisible – but most of their constituents voted to Leave. The less said about the subject during the election campaign, the better, the party believed. In Scotland, which voted Remain, the Scottish Nationalists wanted to discuss little else, but opinion polls have shown that since the referendum result, over half of the 48 per cent who supported staying in the EU now wanted the government to get on with leaving. This was bad news for the Liberal Democrats, the only openly pro-EU party at the national level, who hoped to recover from their disastrous result in 2015.

As the election campaign entered its final 10 days, Theresa May’s Conservatives,though chastened, still seemed odds-on for a substantial victory. For those looking on in Europe and elsewhere, the surprise would have been how little attention had been paid to Brexit, which ultimately will matter far more to Britain’s future than the efforts of terrorists, no matter how shocking their attacks.

The effects of Britain’s decision to quit the EU are already beginning to be felt in such areas as the decline in sterling and the upturn in inflation. More unforeseen complications are cropping up every day, from regulation of dangerous materials to architects’ qualifications, from farmers’ subsidies to product testing. After June 8 Britain will be sailing into the unknown, but those responsible for navigating the country through Brexit appear to have boundless confidence in their ability to reach a safe harbour without using any maps.


A former Asia Editor of The Independent and Foreign Edtor of The Independent on Sunday, Raymond Whitaker is Editor of Asian Affairs

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