Back on December 6, less than a week before Boris Johnson’s momentous victory in the British parliamentary elections, The Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker offered an analysis of the political implications for the United Kingdom—and probably beyond—should Johnson pull off the triumph that seemed in store. It would be, he wrote, “a defining moment in the development of modern Western politics, a potentially pivotal event of the age of populism, with ramifications that go beyond British shores.”
Baker quoted a University of Kent professor named Matthew Goodwin as saying that Britain seemed headed toward a political “realignment.” Working-class voters from the north of England and the Midlands, who had buoyed the fortunes of the Labour Party since the 1930s, were now shifting toward Johnson’s Conservatives in large numbers. Meanwhile, Conservative voters from the urban south were abandoning the party.
The key, of course, was Brexit, the referendum vote of 2016 in favor of a British exit from the European Union. By winning an outright Parliamentary majority, Boris Johnson positioned himself to lead his country out of the EU, as he has been wanting to do since he became the UK’s prime minister last July. But the import of the vote goes well beyond that. Gerard Baker sees the Conservatives, under Johnson, as veering away from their half-century support for what he called “neoliberal economics” and a generally liberal approach to high-voltage social issues such as same-sex marriage and lax immigration policies. He elaborated:
A party whose core supporters were in large part highly educated, economically successful achievers, open to high levels of immigration, free trade and global integration, is becoming a party whose base will include huge numbers of the less advantaged and less well-educated, who have lost ground in an age of rising inequality and who support protectionism, tight restrictions on immigration and the primacy of national sovereignty.
Baker suggested that what appeared to be a looming realignment election stemmed from the same forces driving conservative-populist movements elsewhere in the West, including in the United States, with its elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, and in such other nations as Poland, Hungary, Italy, Germany, and France. In all of these places, politics is being catalyzed or disrupted by large numbers of voters “who feel ignored and even disdained by their traditional political leadership,” writes Baker. Many of them are working-class whites who feel left behind economically by globalization and alienated from urban cultural elites.
By way of illustration, Baker cited the political situation in Bishop Auckland, the parliamentary constituency in County Durham in the far northeast of England, which has been represented in Parliament by Labour since 1935. “[W]orking class to its core,” as Baker described the constituency, it gave Labour two thirds of its vote as recently as 1997. But in the Brexit referendum of 2016, it voted 61 percent to 39 percent for leaving the EU. And with the surrounding economy in tatters since the closing of the local coal mine, while London and the other cities of the south are thriving, frustration and resentment are driving politics in Bishop Auckland.
The day after Baker’s provocative piece ran in the Journal, The New York Times published a long article by Patrick Kingsley based on his extensive travels through Britain leading up to the Boris Johnson victory. He reported a wide variety of political sentiments percolating in the electorate. But then he added: “Again and again, though, people came back to the politics of nationalism, austerity and economic alienation.” Often, he said, the frustrations were rooted in Brexit.
He traveled to Shirebrook near the center of England, once a thriving mining town (like Bishop Auckland), now reduced to economic difficulties since the mine closed down, to be replaced by a warehouse where wages are low and employment means being treated “like a monkey,” in the words of one local resident. Since Shirebrook’s surrounding constituency was formed in 1950, writes Kingsley, its mostly working-class residents have always elected Labour lawmakers. Then came the Brexit referendum, in which the constituency went 70 percent for abandoning the EU.
Many locals have been seething at the inability of the government since the Brexit vote to follow the will of the people. Kingsley quotes a former miner who voted to leave the EU as saying: “Every time you turn on the television, it’s all Brexit. By now it should have been done, dusted.” Another former miner explained the political implications of this frustration: “Miners now are like, ‘Oh, Boris, Boris.” Considering that the area once despised just about everything the Conservatives stood for, he added that this seemed “crazy.”
Finally, another article in the same Times issue reinforced the view that some seismic shifts are shaking the political landscape of the West. Times reporters Peter S. Goodman and Emma Bubola revealed the growing anger of residents of Prato, Italy, who once thrived in the area’s textile trades but who now are being forced out of business by an influx of aggressive Chinese entrepreneurs who have “emerged as a textile powerhouse, undercutting local businesses.”
The reporters describe the plight of Roberta Travaglini, once a happy textile mill employee, now a mother of two boys reduced to living off of her retired parents. She also used to be a loyal Communist Party adherent, but in last year’s national elections she voted for the conservative-populist League, which the Times describes as an “extreme right-wing party whose bombastic leader, Matteo Salvini, offered a rudimentary solution to Italy’s travails: Close the gates.”
As that last quote suggests, one must make allowances for the usual Times bias in reporting such developments. But the Roberta Traviglini anecdote reflects the same political phenomenon identified by the Journal’s Gerard Baker and the Times’s Patrick Kingsley—namely that conservative populism is on the rise, that it is being driven by the working classes of the West, and that the parties of neoliberalism are in jeopardy of losing the same voters once considered their core constituencies.
The underlying phenomenon of all this is that the meritocratic elites of the West unleashed a political wildfire when they sought to move their nations in directions that large numbers of their citizens didn’t want to go—towards globalism, open borders, anti-nationalism, deindustrialization, anti-religion, and profound transformations in societal mores. There remain throughout the West large constituencies in favor of those sentiments. But the battle is joined, and it will define the politics of Western nations far into the future. That’s the meaning of Boris Johnson’s remarkable political triumph on December 12.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).