This is my first opinion piece for Edinburgh University’s student newspaper, The Student; it’s also the first time my work has been published in print, which is pretty cool. I’ll be trying to write a lot more for them in the future, so watch this space! If you’re reading this the week it comes out, there should still be a few copies available: try Teviot, Black Medicine or the Main Library if you’d like to pick one up. –AB x
Let me ask you a simple question: why did the UK public vote for Brexit?
Was it due to fatigue with the tedious bureaucracy of Brussels? Did they believe that some short-term economic strife would be worth the increased flexibility that freedom from the single market would allow? Or was it due to Johnson and Farage’s slick charisma and can-do attitude?
While all of these factors definitively played a role in swinging the vote, I think that each misses the core of the issue. The thing is, people that voted to Leave were majoratively not particularly concerned with the nitty-gritty details of immigration laws and bilateral trade agreements. Rather, in something of a precursor to the era of politics that has proceeded it, the vote was driven by that raw and almost irrational desire for independence and sovereignty. The details didn’t matter, really: those could be left for the politicians to sort out. As my Nan put it to my (visibly exasperated) parents at the time, she voted Leave because she “wanted our empire back”.
However, as Liz Truss is learning the hard way on her recent catapulting into the role of Foreign Secretary, the “sorting out” part of that fool-proof plan is much easier said than done.
In June 2016, while the Leave/Remain Debate was busy heating to melting point, then-US President Barack Obama delivered a pessimistic prophecy on the final UK visit of his term: despite campaigners’ insistence that an agreement would be imminent in the years following the referendum, Brexit Britain would be at the “back of the line” as far as American trade deals were concerned. Vote Leave dismissed this as nonsense at the time, reminding us that Obama would soon be out of office, meaning that a deal could be put through right away with his successor. Two Presidential elections and five years of negotiations later, though, the Biden administration has held no punches in informing our government that their long-promised bilateral partnership would not be materialising any time soon.
Now, the natural reaction to all this would be to guffaw at our short-sighted, xenophobic compatriots. In their defence, Truss’ speech at this week’s Conservative Party conference assured listeners that the US prioritising relations with countries such as India and Japan over us was nothing to worry about, and that we should strengthen our other alliances, too. While I think she is right, this is still hardly the “Global Britain” we were promised, never mind my grandmother’s reveries of an empire revived. But despite the fact that I, along with a host of pessimistic Remainers (and likely most Vote Leave politicians), absolutely saw this coming, the childish “I-told-you-so” victory that the UK’s floundering trade status provides us is profoundly hollow. At the end of the day, Leave voters were not in it for economic stability and trade negotiations—theirs was a vote for ideological independence. If this was what it would take to get that, then so be it; the sneers of the cosmopolitan minority will never make them regret their decision.
This new period of identity politics is so potent, and so potentially dangerous, because utopian ideas run the show—sometimes seemingly taking precedence over reality. These ideals, when harnessed correctly, can be the building blocks for a better world; we must be careful, though, lest they be used to tear the current one apart at its foundations. Though the Brexit vote has not yet led to the latter, it will be up to politicians like Truss to fulfil their promises and forge us a more prosperous future. After all, who needs America anyway?
Abraham Lincoln famously quipped that “A House divided against itself, cannot stand”. Though these words were addressed to an 1800s America on the brink of Civil War, their message is applicable all across history: a timeless reminder that fundamental differences between allies can destroy even the most valiant institutions and movements from within.
A poignant example of this is the Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936 through until 1939, ending just as the rest of Europe erupted into chaos with the outbreak of World War II. Spain, since the exile of its king in 1931, had become a democratic republic: it championed values such as suffrage, divorce, gender equality, and freedom of religion, all of which were controversially progressive issues for a country that even today is still deeply devoted to its traditional Catholic roots. Even these five years, then, were plagued by bitter political battles between the progressive left and the traditionalist right, as well as spats within each camp between those in support of republic and people wanting to tear it down, whether that be Christian monarchists or radical anarchists. This period of tension, subterfuge and backstabbing eventually concluded with the army’s right-wing generals launching an invasion of southern Spain, plunging the country into a Civil War.
The lines of this war were quickly and decisively drawn. There were “Nationalists”, people in support of the rebels’ leader, General Francisco Franco, and his fascist invading forces, and “Republicans”, which were pretty much everyone else: an alliance of everyone from moderates who simply preferred democracy to fascism, to socialists, to all-out anarchists, who just hated Franco more than they disliked the moderate Republic. While this uneasy alliance, borne out of hatred of their shared enemy, lasted about a year, by 1937 in-fighting began: extremists and moderates began to attack each other in the infamous “May days”, leaving the entire alliance vulnerable to the more unified, aggressive and focused Nationalist forces, who took advantage of the chaos to gain the upper hand in the war. The Republicans never recovered, and lost their stronghold of Madrid in March 1939, letting in nearly forty years of brutal dictatorship.
I think there are important lessons we can learn from this example, many of which are particularly relevant in today’s US. The truth is, like the (Spanish) Republicans, the current American Democratic party is an incredibly unlikely alliance: for the past 4 years, it has shown surprising cohesion as the “anything but Donald Trump” wing of the American political spectrum. Trump himself, on the other hand, is no match for Franco’s extremism and brutality—nonetheless, his recent denial of the legitimate results of the 2020 Presidential election only reinforces his long-standing opposition to democracy if it does not work in his favour, much like the 1930s Spanish right wing. And while, like in Spain, this shared enemy of democracy may temporarily unite two disparate viewpoints to oppose it, I think that the party, and President Joe Biden at the head of it, are going to face the mounting challenge of keeping the organisation together as time drags on.
Over 81 million Americans voted for Joe Biden: more than in any other election in the nation’s history. This, in itself, is a staggering figure which only highlights the importance of last year’s election. In the world’s most diverse nation, this group obviously consisted of a wide range of demographics: people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds stepped up to vote, many for the first time. The victory they achieved was massive both in terms of sheer numbers and significance, and pushed Biden over his first hurdle to become the 46th President of the US. However, it only represented the first of his many challenges: more than anything now, it emphasises the weight of the unique hopes of those millions of individuals, all of which now rest on his shoulders.
Biden has already taken further steps by winning a majority in the US Senate. Unlike the UK, where the Prime Minister is simply appointed by the biggest party in Parliament, which is elected at once, America has separate elections for both the Senate and the House (think of these as almost like the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but both have important powers) as well as an entirely different one for the President, which is what we saw in November. While the approval of all three is needed to pass major legislation, it is possible for a President to have control of only one of these or even to have neither, as Obama faced later on in his Presidency—this means their opponents can stop almost anything they do. The good news is that while the world was watching Trump-supporting extremists storm the Capitol a week ago, the Democrats quietly won two Senate seats back from Republicans in special elections in Georgia, securing (barely) a majority for Biden when he is inaugurated on top of his control of the House; this means the President will actually be able to effectively pass laws through the Houses without the Republicans entirely blocking everything.
However, the battle nowhere near done—the new President still faces the crucial issue of keeping his party together, on top of running a whole country, down the line. Even after the races in Georgia, the Senate will be perfectly split 50-50 (with the Vice-President having the deciding vote): if even one Democrat decides to vote against him, he won’t be able to pass anything into law. In his new autobiography, “A Promised Land” (which I really recommend if you want to learn about American politics; it’s teaching me a lot), Barack Obama highlights the difficulties of this situation. The knife-edge majority grants every Democratic Senator a huge amount of bargaining power, allowing them to force any law Biden tries to pass to change, stopping it in its tracks by voting against it if he doesn’t listen to their demands. This presented huge issues for Obama who, even though he had a bigger majority than Biden does now, had to bend over backwards to ridiculous personal requests in order to pass anything at all, taking huge shortcuts such as extra billion-dollar projects in Louisiana to deliver his landmark healthcare bill, for example. The new President will face all of the same issues that Obama did: even so, I think that the fallout from having to concede to these demands may be greater than ever, effectively threatening to divide the party in two.
The Democratic Party is split between two blocs: “moderates”, who are less harsh right-wingers looking to keep continuity in the US (think UK Tories but mixed with Lib Dems), and “progressives”, who push for greater government investment and change (more like Labour). This important rift, while having been swept under the rug for years in order to deal with Trump, is once again beginning to rear its head now that the Democrats once again have control of government. Biden and his future Vice-President, Kamala Harris, mostly fall into the former camp, while figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more prominent leaders of the latter. Progressives, though, were instrumental in securing Biden’s win—led by Bernie after his defeat and young campaigners on social media, they began a mighty push to “settle for Biden”, throwing their support behind him solely in order to kick out Trump—Biden, too, rose to their demands, for example on cancelling student loan debt, knowing that he had to count on their support to win. And, he has: but now that aim has been achieved, the atmosphere amongst progressives is beginning to change from support to suspicion. Biden’s cabinet nominations are showing many more play-it-safe moderate figures than progressive torchbearers, causing many voters to be disappointed, indicating that there may already be a marked difference between Biden’s agenda and that which many progressives, both voters and politicians, were hoping for. The cracks, then, may already be beginning to show.
What does any of this mean? I am worried that like in 1930s Spain, the differences between the Democrats could spell disaster for them. The fact that any of the fifty Democratic senators could single-handedly stop a law from passing will mean that any of them could make pretty much any request they wanted: but what happens when a moderate makes a demand that progressives don’t like? Or vice versa? Such arguments are bound to happen, and I think they may well tear the party apart, causing either half to entirely veto legislation made by their own official allies. Meanwhile, the Republicans will surely be waiting on the sidelines, spying weaknesses to exploit during future elections in 2022 and 2024. If the Democrats can’t reconcile their differences, I don’t see their grip on power lasting long.
Mark Twain, Lincoln’s contemporary, told us that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. The Spanish Civil War was fought over 80 years ago and in entirely different circumstances, but the principles at stake were mostly the same as in modern America: those who are driven to defend democracy pushing back those who are desperate to bend it to their will. And while we might think that if anywhere, democracy is safe in the Land of the Free, the 6th of January taught us that we should take nothing for granted (especially when the police and even the President support the aggressors). Joe Biden may yet face some of the toughest challenges of any President in recent memory: we will all be counting on him to overcome them.