Is This The Most Important British General Election Since 1979?

The forthcoming election will have far-reaching repercussions for the UK

Features
The oldest profession? Psephologists David Butler (left) and R.B. McCallum (second left) in the BBC studio on election night, 1950 (copyright ©BBC Photo library)

While the populace may yawn, it is bonanza time for us election junkies. For the doyen of psephologists, the active 92-year-old Sir David Butler (whose biography by Michael Crick is eagerly awaited), it will be the 16th general election since he first analysed the 1945 polling statistics for R.B. McCallum, that other pioneer of the new science of voting studies. A Scottish Liberal in the traditional mould, McCallum’s main concern in writing what was to become the first of the Nuffield Election Studies was to help avoid what he saw as the punitive economic demands on Germany resulting from the general election of 1918 held in the immediate aftermath of its defeat.

The actual term “psephology” is said to have been used for the first time in 1952 with McCallum and Butler as its first practitioners. Not long after that, the daughter of Butler’s main American collaborator, Professor Donald Stokes, was asked in the playground — so the story goes — what her father did for a living. When she said “psephologist” and a friend replied contemptuously that it must be a new profession, she insisted that it was the oldest profession in the world.

As my doctoral supervisor at Nuffield College, Oxford, Butler introduced me to Britain’s electoral geography. At its heart was the Marquis of Granby, a fine pub with excellent cheese sandwiches situated just off Smith Square. Journalists and party officials would gather there before and after party press conferences. The Tory headquarters was a fine-looking but actually rather grubby building at 32 Smith Square. Labour’s head office was on the same square, at Transport House, the headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU, now merged into Unite). For a time, the Liberals too had a more modest office on Smith Square. Of the significance of this configuration, more anon.

A highlight of my education was the chance to accompany Butler in interviews with the (soon to be ex-) Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Shortly before the 1970 general election, he was full of confidence as he smoked a Churchillian cigar in his office at Number Ten (not the more proletarian pipe he preferred in public). Asked about his failed application for the UK to join the Common Market, as the European Union was then called, he said that his motive had been that Britain could have led it. A few weeks after that interview, when we called again to see him, he was a refugee. Turfed out of Number Ten when the removal vans arrived on the morrow of his unexpected defeat at the hands of Edward Heath, he was camping in the Vincent Square home of his colleague Dick Crossman while he and his wife looked for a new home.

Wilson’s undignified ouster struck me as the essence of the majesty of “removal van democracy”, the ability of voters to dismiss the government by peaceful means. Two things whose importance have later become apparent did not occur to me at the time. First, that removal van democracy — the direct connection between the verdict of the electors and the dismissal of a sitting prime minister — occurs only in a first-past-the-post system and not always under these rules. In proportional representation systems, the connection between electoral choice and a change of government is uncertain and frequently delayed while rival parties bicker about coalition arrangements and while minority parties are likely to hold the whip hand. Second, I assumed that elections really did have fundamental policy outcomes. That assumption was soon put to the test. It turned out that Heath’s administration, like Wilson’s, was dominated by economic problems exacerbated by trade union bosses. They brought Heath to his knees. Moreover, Heath, like Wilson and Harold Macmillan before him, felt obliged to seek escape from the UK’s economic problems by seeking admission to the club of European nations, a policy which split both of the main parties and received wafer-thin approval in the House of Commons. The shared feature of the UK’s three applications of the 1960s and ’70s to join the European Economic Community was the strong feeling among senior civil servants that the country’s economic situation left no other choice.

So what had the elections of 1964, 1966, 1970, February 1974 and October 1974 really decided (apart from the procession of removal vans ferrying the belongings of defeated prime ministers from Downing Street)? In an important edition published in 1981 and co-edited by Butler under the title Democracy at the Polls, a highly original chapter by Anthony King asked, “What do elections decide?” As it turns out, the question was more searching than the usual concern of journalists and psephologists alike: “What decides elections?”

King’s question is relevant for all elections but particularly so for Britain’s forthcoming vote on June 8. If the room for manoeuvre was so limited for British governments in the 1960s and ’70s, will the new administration be any freer in its dealings with EU negotiators about the terms of Britain’s leaving? Will the choices for UK voters turn out to be so unsatisfactory that, in one way or another, the country will once more be forced to grovel and to obey rules of the game imposed in Brussels and Berlin? If so, will this year’s general election, like so many earlier ones, have been of no lasting significance?

The answer is that electoral outcomes, while usually constrained by economic and geopolitical realities as well as what Macmillan called “Events, dear boy, events,” may matter a lot but only very occasionally. Possibly the only general elections which have had deep consequences since the Second World War were those of 1945, after which Clement Attlee’s Labour government created a social democratic mixed economy, and of 1979, when Margaret Thatcher used her victory to curb its dangerous extravagance. Even Mrs Thatcher felt constrained in challenging senior cabinet colleagues who were prepared to go along with the European project of “ever closer union”. Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 was possibly more important for the constitutional changes introduced under his premiership (which were of relatively little interest to him) than for his actions concerning economic and foreign affairs.

Whatever the constraints on democratically-elected British governments of recent decades, they do not compare with those which would have existed in the future under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty had the 2016 referendum had a different outcome. Having already been obliged to confront the relatively weak European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, Theresa May has rightly been deeply alarmed by the prospects of rule by the far more powerful Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. The adoption of a vague, expansive Charter of Fundamental Rights has given the Luxembourg court a legal sledgehammer with which to batter the House of Commons.

Very powerful forces will be at work to constrain Britain’s negotiators. EU bureaucrats will be skilled, probably devious. After his time in 2015 as Greece’s finance minister, the warnings of Yanis Varoufakis need to be taken very seriously indeed. My own experience at the outer margins of Euro-negotiations, especially during the work of the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights, has impressed me with the huge influence of procedure: physical placements around a table, timetables of meetings, agendas, preparation of documents, minutes, simple tactics of divide and rule of the “enemy” and, especially, closeted settings and artificial decision deadlines. These are well-known tactics. Yet, I was very struck by how effective they are in breaking the will of highly-skilled professionals. At first, it may not appear necessary or reasonable to risk an early fracture by resisting points of procedure. But beware. And take account of recent European history.

If the results of the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU and of the general election of 2017 are to be effective, two other things will need to be tackled. One is the realisation that national self-determination (in other words, democracy) may not accord with short- and medium-term economic convenience. Freedom and democracy may well have a price (though probably less dire than the promoters of Project Fear would like us to believe). Second, the expert advice of civil servants, though it should be taken seriously, should not always be allowed to trump public opinion. The contemptuous term “populism” is too pejorative, tripping too easily from the tongues of the cognoscenti. The public is capable of serious illusion, but so too are officials. It must not be forgotten that some British civil servants have enjoyed lucrative EU postings while others have taken advantage of rules which too easily allow them to take up highly profitable post-retirement posts in the very areas in which they have previously been involved as public servants.

Perhaps it is not very surprising that elections (especially those conducted on the British removal van model) do not overly appeal to some mandarins. The arrangements devised in the run-up to the 2010 general election by the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Lord (then Sir Gus) O’Donnell to promote and entrench conventions of coalition government in the form of a controversial “Cabinet Manual” were, as I have argued before in Standpoint, an unnecessary and undesirable innovation dressed up as a résumé of established practice. Effectively it was a civil service power grab intended to substitute European constitutional arrangements for British ones. O’Donnell’s successor Sir Jeremy Hayward apparently planned to follow those arrangements in the event of a hung parliament in 2015. For obvious reasons, talk of hung parliaments is absent from the current election campaign. The danger is that this will permit Sir Jeremy to maintain the “Cabinet Manual” and to keep it in reserve for future elections.

This brings me back to the party headquarters formerly in Smith Square. The Labour Party has changed relatively little, though what was Transport House is now occupied by the Local Government Association, a government-funded lobbying organisation. The TGWU, in its current form of Unite, has largely determined the Labour leadership. As for the Conservatives, the old Smith Square HQ is now the London office of the European Commission and is funded in considerable part by UK taxpayers through contributions to the EU. Will Brussels’s negotiators demand further payment for its repatriation?

So will votes on June 8 have any lasting effects? The takeover of Labour by the Corbynites and the stakes in the forthcoming negotiations on exiting the EU both suggest that the election could be the most important since 1979 and, before that, 1945. That will depend as much on what happens afterwards as on polling day itself.