By Hayden Siratt
The United Kingdom and the United States are said to have a “special relationship” defined by their shared culture and shared language. The US legal systems and fundamentally ideas of freedom and democracy have its roots in British law and political thought. With the shared struggles of the 20th century and the continued globalization of world politics, the political bond between the UK and the US has only strengthened. The strong bond between these two countries both politically and culturally raises the question that could the elections of one country serve as an indicator of the election of another: does the Conservative landslide victory in 2019 indicate that President Trump will defy expectations once more and be elected President in 2020?
The major indicator that there could be a correlation between US and UK politics and elections is 2016. 2016 saw two of the biggest political upsets in the 21st century: the British people voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Analysing these events retrospectively indicates that there was a strong link between the US and UK. Both the election of Donald Trump as well as the Brexit vote had very similar factors that influenced these events. I would like to focus on what I believe are the three most important: nationalism, immigration, and sovereignty.
Anthony Smith argues that nationlists point to this ‘golden age’ in the past where society and a nation were much better off, and nationlists want to revive that past. The Campaign to Leave’s messaging– ‘take back control’ and an emphasis on the World War II—resonated with voters national identity and sentiment who wanted Britain to strike out alone as it did before. In a similar manner, Donald Trump campaigned on making “America Great Again” as it was in the time of Reagan. Both campaigns focused on this idea of national identity and nationalism separating themselves from the rest of the world and playing into a mythical and nostalgic view of their own histories.
Emotionally charged views on immigration played a major role in both Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit vote. Both Donald Trump and the Campaign to Leave focused on the negative sides of immigration: jobs being lost and criminals crossing the border. These ideas on immigration resonated with the more working-class voters who felt that the economy was suffering from the strain of too much immigration. Immigration also tied into the debate on the NHS which was another focal point in the Brexit vote. In a controversial address in May of 2016, Michael Grove warned that over 5.2 million people will migrate to the UK by 2030 which would lead to the NHS being unsustainable. The numbers provided by Grove seem overly exaggerated, but his address shows the fear surrounding an increase in immigration and was a factor in the vote.
Lastly, ideas of sovereignty played a major role in both the Trump campaign and the Campaign to Leave. In the United States, voters felt that they were being cheated on the international stage with their jobs being robbed by increased globalisation, disadvantageous trade deals- specifically with China- and multilateral agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord (Trump’s sovereignty doctrine was outlined in his UN address in 2017). Trump appealed to this idea of economic populism promoting small businesses and targeting large multinational firms and the corporate elite which were harming small business and the average American worker. The Trump Campaign focused much of its messaging on ideas of sovereignty—taking power and benefits away from other countries as well as large corporations and giving that power back to the American people. This sentiment of sovereignty helped Trump swing voters in states which have been stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Similarly, voters for Leave felt that the European Union was taking away their freedom and superseding British governance. In both these events, there was a major focus on “taking back control” and putting their countries “first” above all others.
The factors and campaigns in 2016 shared many similarities, and the shared outcomes of both indicate a strong correlation between UK and US politics and elections. However, does this narrative from 2016 still hold true today?
The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election both had very similar factors which led to the shared outcome; however, the factors which will govern the 2020 US election look different from the 2019 UK General Election. The 2019 UK General Election was a referendum on the Brexit vote and had very similar factors to 2016. Again, key topics of immigration and sovereignty played a pivotal role in the 2019 General Election; in addition, the Labour campaign failed to stand in opposition to the Conservative party and tried to tackle too many issues. The Conservative’s clear messaging and united stance on “getting Brexit done” served in contrast to Labour who was bitterly divided over how to handle the Brexit negotiations if they had won a majority. This messaging and the political factors surrounding the 2019 UK General Election helped win over the voters in the historic “red wall” leading to the Conservative landslide similar to how Trump broke the “blue wall” in 2016.
Likewise in the United States, some analysts were predicting that Trump was left in a better political position after the impeachment proceedings, which ended in an acquittal by the Senate on February 5th, by allowing Trump to re-energize the Republican base by appearing to them as a “victim,” and the Democrats wasted valuable time in a process which ended in little result. The major factors which were looking like would dominate the 2020 election looked very similar to 2016 with the key debates centering around immigration, impeachment, and the economy. In addition, Trump had high approval ratings and the Republicans did comparatively well in the 2018 mid-terms losing the House but maintaining and even increasing their control of the Senate. However, those major factors have completely changed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now the 2020 election will be dominated by Trump’s response to the coronavirus, and if he is able to regain his standing as it was before the coronavirus. The focus of the election has shifted to debates about the US health system and the economy post-coronavirus. These factors are very different from the 2019 UK election. No longer does both the UK and US elections share common factors and the same focus. With this new change, can the 2019 UK election indicate how the 2020 US election will play out?
It is unlikely that the 2019 UK election can serve as an indicator for the 2020 US election due to the coronavirus pandemic and its aftershocks. The primary focus and debates surrounding the 2020 US election have shifted over the course of the last few months. The 2020 US election will ultimately be decided by whether or not the American people feel that Trump handled the coronavirus crisis well, if he can stabilise the American economy and change America’s health system for the better.
“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.”