The General Election will take place on the 12th December. It’s going to be a long six weeks running through the shortening days of the Autumn: a season of vicious political debate, a fair amount of mendacity and, doubtless, numerous twists and turns.
The nation is deeply divided. There are deep political, economic, social, cultural and opportunity tensions which, now, are reduced to a division between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’. The economic divisions are stark: the United Kingdom is the most regionally unequal country in Europe. The south and east include communities which are amongst the most prosperous parts of the entire continent; the north, west and south-west include some of the poorest. Real wages across much of the country remain below the levels of 2007. There are sharp differences across the country in the way people look at the world. For some, the uncertainties of the twenty-first century and the economic and social dislocations which go with them produce a hankering for a world of certainties and more cohesive communities. However, as the historian Jon Lawrence argues in Me, Me, Me?, his recent study of the idea of community in post-war Britain, those ideas are all too often rosy-eyed myths. And there are sharp generational divides: according to most recent polls the political allegiances of the over 60s are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the polar opposite of the under 25s.
The divisions were not created by Brexit, but they have, without doubt, been exposed by it. My other recent read has been David Reynolds’ book Island Stories: Britain and its History in the age of Brexit. Reynolds unpacks the different ideas which underpin angrily competing views of Europe and Brexit: a hankering for a nation ‘standing alone’, a promise of a ‘national rebirth’, a vision of an internationalist ‘global’ nation or a more nationalist ‘island story’. Reynolds examines the way our engagement with – and perhaps now disengagement from – Europe intertwines with our national attempt to find a shared post-imperial story for Britain in what is a rapidly changing and often bewildering world. Brexit and its stories have divided communities, families and political parties themselves, and have demonstrated some of the weaknesses of our creaking, unwritten constitution.
The 2019 General Election will not resolve these questions, although our television screens and social media feeds will be full of politicians trying to argue that it can. But what it will do is to dictate the terms in which such questions are posed. That makes this a potentially turning point election, like the elections of 1906, won by the reforming Liberal government which established the fledgling welfare state, of 1945, which brought Labour to power establishing the National Health Service and the post-war social settlement and of 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s victory which essentially ended that settlement. A large Conservative majority in 2019 will pull the nation decisively away from its European engagement into a quite different world. The very future of the United Kingdom may be in question. A Labour majority will provide a radical shift in economic and social policy. A hung Parliament, which is a 50-50 possibility according to the political betting websites, and which may be the most representative outcome for a divided nation, will mean that the questions get worked through in a fractious House of Commons.
I’m not sure whether higher education policy will play a significant part in this election – I suspect not. For different reasons, all three large English parties have reason to steer clear of it: Labour have an uncosted policy to abolish fees; the Conservatives felt that the cost of higher education damaged them in 2017, and the Liberal Democrats are still smarting from their decision to renege on their 2010 promise not to raise fees. In practice, though, universities are deeply affected by many of these divisions, playing as they do a key role in seeking to level inter-generational inequalities and drive future prosperity and success. This university has set out commitments about its own role. We will ‘lead locally and engage globally’, and we deliver this through our ambitious support for small and medium sized enterprises, for schools, our engagement with further education and in health improvement. Whatever the outcome on December 12th, we are clear that universities in general, and this university in particular have a responsibility to engage with their regions. We will work with whoever wins next month to realise our goals.
I have no intention of telling anyone how to vote in this election. But I will say, loudly and repeatedly that you should – must – vote. If you aren’t registered, register: it takes five minutes at most. Last week I had a corridor conversation with one of our EU staff, who pointed out to me that she doesn’t get a vote in general elections. For her sake, if nothing else, whatever you do over the next six weeks, register and vote.