The day of the election on 8 June I had to travel to Leeds. I thus passed ‘my’ polling station early in the morning, feeling reassured that some voters already went in and came out. As this is only theoretically ‘my ‘ polling station, as I am only allowed to vote in local elections, I passed it with as sense of regret for being denied a vote in the country where I pay my taxes and whose politics are about to decide the boundaries of my European citizenship. But then, I did not even have a vote in the referendum that (indirectly) triggered this latest round of going to the polls. ‘We will vote for you as well’ a friend tweeted me on the this occasion – and to be honest, I am lucky to live in a constituency where my non-vote would not have made a difference, as the capable local Labour MP won on overall majority easily (and Remain also carried the day then, when my future was more directly at stake).
When I returned from Leeds in the early evening I was exhausted – as one is on these occasions when one sits in windowless rooms and has meetings the whole day. I thought I check the news at ten, the exit pools, results will be clear by then, and go to sleep, as a two-day workshop would start early the next day. Well, at four in the morning I still found myself sitting on the sofa wide awake, glued to the TV, even if a bit jaded by then – admiring the BBC election night team and in particualr Laura Kuenssberg who all looked as fresh as when they started the broadcast and where able to provide analysis on the hoof as if sleep was an invention they simply did not need.
It has been a long time since I sat with such excitement in front of an election broadcast – and concerning an election that I had no direct stake in, in a country that may not allow me to be here in the future. Exchanging tweets and texts with friends near and afar whenever another blue seat turned red, often in the most unlikely geographical settings, we were all a united and happy bunch for a few hours. Of course there was the Scottish vote which left many of us slightly concerned, but still.
It all felt great for a night and half a day – that one could enthuse young people into politics, that one could campaign for a politics ‘by the many not the few’ and actually win, at least in theory. A sense of hope and protest against a ‘truth’ propagated by an elite that used ‘the people’ as a projection of their own phantasies of power, an elite that was not likely to pay the prize for the disastrous direction it was about to take the country into.
But two days later, the hangover set in. Yes, Labour did fantastically well and its campaign based on people’s real concerns was vindicated. But Teresa May is still the PM, and her leadership based on autocratic control coupled with incompetence in many areas is bound to be augmented by her new bedfellows from the DUP. Yes, Labour did fantastically well, but it still lost the election. Maybe it is true what some commentators have said, that a movement is in the making, a movement of people newly engaged with politics. And maybe it will be enough next time to take control of the country and change its direction. But the momentum could also simply ebb away, we shall have to wait and see. It might also well be true that Labour would have carried the vote on the day had the campaigns been a few weeks longer – certainly a sense of almost inevitable momentum was observed on the campaign trail – even though many on canvassing duties who saw this momentum first hand still did not quite believe they would run the Tories so close this time, which in itself tells a story.
Looking at where the reality of a hung parliament has left us, maybe a second turn to Scotland can give us some hope. While still being slightly perplexed about how so many Scottish voters turned to the Tories to voice their discontent, Ruth Davidson referred to something that I always felt should be behind a decision to go into politics, a spirit of public service. She stated that there are interests bigger than the party, such as the country, and LGBT rights in her case. Whatever she may mean by the interest of the country – things could have been very different if her own party would not have put its internal divisions and power battles before the interest of the country and its people, from the Brexit referendum to the snap elections and the dynamcis in between.
And that is not the end of it by any means. A possible deal of any kind with the DUP just continues a story bound to end in disaster – but many in the Tory elite could not care less it seems. A minority government being held hostage by a fundamentalist fringe party is bad enough. But in the process potentially jeopardizing much of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is criminal. I lived in Dublin in the early 1990s, and often crossed the heavily guarded border into the North then. One occasion in particular has stuck in my mind: On a rainy Friday afternoon, I arrived at a British checkpoint on my way to Donegal, having taken the route that partly passes through Northern Ireland. In front was a (Southern) Irish car already waiting, the British soldiers manning the checkpoint sat there drinking tea and making jokes, but not attempting to check the car and let it through. It turned out the Irish family in the car was on the way to a wedding in Donegal – and they had the bridal dress with them. The soldiers enjoyed making them wait – for no reason, simply because they had the power to do so. It was appalling – they even offered to let me trough, having a car with German number plates – but I refused, deciding to show solidarity with the increasingly anxious Irish family. We sat there for about two hours in the rain, and were then allowed to pass without even a glimpse into our cars. That was how bad things were then, not that long ago in history.
When I was back in Belfast a few years ago for the first time again, by then the Good Friday agreement in place for a number of years, I was thrilled what a vibrant and ‘normal’ city it had become. In the early 1990s it was common to walk out of a pub facing the machine gun of a British soldiers pointing at you – just in case and to show who was in charge. Now it did not feel different from Manchester or any other UK city on a Friday night out, and a joy to visit, even with some of the ‘peace walls’ still in place and restricted crossings in some parts of the city at night.
The potentially imminent deal with the DUP reminds me of how contingent political progress can be – it takes the UK government as an independent arbiter in Northern Ireland politics out of the equation, a role that has been crucial in setting up a devolved government in the first place. The last words thus fittingly shall be with Fintan O’Toole, the Irish columnist, who wrote one of the best pieces on the British elections I have come across thus far for the New York Review of Books. Under the title ‘The end of a Fantasy’ he analyses it as a process where phony populism collided with the real thing – leaving everybody in limbo. A highly recommended read found here.