UK leader warns of the rise of 'fringe politics'

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaving Downing Street in London on Wednesday. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaving Downing Street in London on Wednesday. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)


United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May celebrates her six-month anniversary in office on Friday. While most UK eyes – and many internationally too – are focused on Brexit, it is potentially other issues that could determine success of her premiership.

When she entered 10 Downing Street in July last year, she inherited many long-standing and contentious policy decisions ranging from vexing challenges such as pensions reform and the country’s housing crisis to big multibillion-pound infrastructure issues such as whether to expand the UK’s wider airport infrastructure.

A key danger, especially with political room for manoeuvre compressed by the European Union referendum aftermath, is that other key non-Brexit decisions could get kicked out into the political long grass again. Yet, it is important, at such a crucial moment, that they are prioritised and sensibly addressed in the best interests of the country. Failure to do so could further undermine confidence in the democratic process.

Elected politicians must now show themselves capable of building consensus to overcome more key, long-term policy challenges such as pensions and housing. They also need to build public confidence in major issues flagged in the referendum, including migration. This is especially critical after the Brexit vote, which underlined widespread disillusionment with UK elites.

The danger is that the rise of populist and nationalist politicians and parties with often half-baked, damaging agendas, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), will grow. May highlighted this in a key speech on Monday in which she warned of the “potential failure of centre-ground politics” unless it tackles tough issues, and responds to public concerns.

The real danger is further fuelling the rise of what she called “fringe politics”.

Of course, being confronted with such major policy questions is not a uniquely UK problem.

In the United States, for instance, the failure of Congress during President Barack Obama’s presidency to deliver reforms in areas such as immigration and long-term federal budget financing, is a notable feature of the political landscape.

And this despite serious attempts by the White House and key Democratic and Republican lawmakers to champion changes, including the Senate Bill passed in 2013 on immigration reform that the House of Representatives refused to formally consider.

As in the UK, this has been one driver of disenchantment, helping propel Donald Trump to the White House.

Trump, like UKIP, has numerous bizarre policy prescriptions that will do more harm than good, but nonetheless appeal to publics alienated from the Washington political process.

As May noted on Monday, meeting these tough-to-solve, first order problems is a significant hurdle that democratic institutions and politicians must do better.

If too many first-order policy problems fester without resolution it can even give the perception of a broken process and, ultimately, the failure of democracy itself.

A key part of the solution is promoting longer-term political outlooks and sensible, cross-party discussion rather than the increasing tendency toward short-termism.

Mechanisms used by UK and US politicians to promote such thinking and action include national commissions, public inquiries and judicial reviews.

But these have had only limited success, as demonstrated by the bipartisan 2010 US National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (also known as Bowles-Simpson).

While it sought to improve the country’s fiscal situation in the medium term and achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run, the plan failed to gain traction in Congress, not even getting out of committee despite much groundwork and careful deliberation.

There is also a pressing need for wider democratic renewal. Here, there are some commonalities but also key differences in the reforms needed across different countries.

The challenge is particularly pressing in the United Kingdom in the wake of the Brexit vote. The referendum revealed a deeply divided nation with many feeling disconnected from the political process with a range of longstanding concerns from immigration to stagnant living standards.

Contrary to what some populist and nationalist politicians assert, including Trump and outgoing UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who campaigned together on the US presidential election trail, there is no “silver bullet” agenda that can address these challenges overnight.

Instead, a long-term, concerted effort is needed to better address these issues through a range of educational, home affairs, economic and other policies.

And alongside this politicians must try to find new ways of engaging with people, both directly and indirectly.

Collectively, such an agenda can move towards demonstrating more effectively how fair and inclusive democratic politics can help overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world that, in the face of globalisation, is fast changing. Failure to better demonstrate the positive effect politics can have in key policy areas may only lead to growing support for the “fringe politics” May refers to, along with its often ill-considered, ineffective policy platforms.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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