Trump’s rules shape U.K. election; Boris Johnson wins big

The British election has encouraged political pundits as they rush to reveal what the U.K. vote for Parliament means for the 2020 U.S. presidential race.  The chances are good that their predictions will not only be wrong but soon forgotten.

Still, the U.K. elections, which will result in the country’s “Brexit” from the EU, illustrated some new rules about politics and how they are changing in the U.K. to follow and confirm the Trump model.

Boris Johnson, the U.K. prime minister, campaigned on the slogan: “Get Brexit Done.”  After three years of trying to leave the EU, delayed by stubborn opposition and perplexing details, many Britons wanted finally to make the decision and get on with life on their own.

Using a slogan to focus a campaign was not invented in the U.K.  Donald Trump used “Make America Great Again” effectively in the 2016 campaign.  It worked so well that it has morphed into “Keep America Great” in the current campaign.

Slogans seem to be replacing platforms.  In an increasingly complex political world and with the short attention spans of voters, they may be the key to successful campaigns.

Catch phrases leave it to the voter to decide what they see as a slogan’s meaning.  “Get Brexit Done” may imply greater political predictability or a relationship with the EU ranging from a “hard” break to sticking pretty close to its rules.  Voters can see in the slogan whatever they’d like.

Similarly, MAGA may mean policies ranging from an enlarged military to reduced environmental regulation to outright historic racism.  The meaning is left to the voter.

Some Democrats have caught on.  “Medicare for All” could be a call for broad change in federal social policy, not only national health insurance.  Politics by slogan may be a clever idea.

The U.K. election also highlighted another trend.  Countries are moving in away from trying to solve problems through joint action with other countries.

Obviously, Brexit means that Britain is leaving a close trade and economic arrangement with a large group of countries in favor of going it alone.  That’s exactly what “leave” voters wanted.

Is that much different from the U.S. confronting the EU, Canada and others?  Questioning NATO and holding back on U.N. payments are American moves away from international commitments.

The U.K. election emphasized the huge importance of two issues growing out of this increased nationalism – trade and immigration.  They are both central to the American political debate.

Countries increasingly believe they will do better in trade relationships one-on-one than they can in multi-national agreements.  The U.S. rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a group of about a dozen nations aimed at blocking China’s influence.  Instead, Trump has chosen to confront China on his own.

The EU has truly integrated European economies and their prosperity has grown.  But Britain has a proud history of playing a major international role and believes it can do better on its own.

The U.S. and the U.K. are united in opposing large-scale immigration.  American policy seeks to limit people from Latin America.  The U.K. will use Brexit to stop the flow from Eastern Europe.  Other European countries pursue similar policies.

Another signpost from the U.K. election is that, though a leader may succeed nationally, such success may stress the fabric of the country and even its national unity.

Johnson has placed an economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, leaving the Irish part of the U.K. in the EU.  That move is promoting serious consideration of uniting it with the Irish Republic, which remains an EU member.

Scotland wants to remain in the EU and is now moving toward a referendum on leaving the U.K.  It could decide to rejoin the EU on its own.

In the U.S., no state can leave the Union.  But on abortion and the environment, we see increasing pressure to allow each state to set its own rules.  That kind of renewed state sovereignty could expand if the country remains deeply divided.

Johnson’s win also confirms that the character of political leaders matters less than their message.  Johnson famously lied to the Queen; Trump sets records for launching lies from the White House.  Their personal lives would once have disqualified them and been considered scandalous.

Their personal defects may lead some opponents to believe that character faults will inevitably lead to election defeat.  Voters had the chance to dump Johnson, but instead gave him a bigger majority.  Trump’s questionable actions are routinely accepted.

The developments in the U.S. and the U.K. may turn out to be temporary aberrations.  If they yield stability or reflect emerging majority opinion, they could represent a new political era with new rules.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.