5 Questions this American has about UK politics in 2021

A photo of the author shrugging and looking confused in front of the Palace of Westminster.
Westminster is confusing

I got my start, as both a blogger and professional writer, covering British politics. Even though I am an American, my heart lies in Westminster. I am fascinated by the workings of Parliament, its traditions, its history, and of course the many people — from MPs to spads to mandarins to journalists — who make it work. Or not work, as the case may be.

However, I’ve not had much time to devote to Westminster lately. For those of you who just emerged from the rock under which you live, the US just had what is without a doubt the most important election of my lifetime. That, coupled with a pandemic throwing a spanner in everything from work to play to mental health, has meant my attention has been focused much closer to home. As such, I have not written nearly as much about British politics as I would have liked.

The new year means a new start, though, and I want to look back towards the UK in 2021. Before I do, though, I need you all to bring me up to speed. Think of this as the sort of EastEnders omnibus the BBC used to show at the weekend, or a Big Brother best bits of 2020, except they’re all horrible and Davina McCall has been replaced by Priti Patel with a blue passport and deportation papers.

Anyway, I have a few questions. If my British readers could answer these, I would be very much obliged.

I can’t imagine what else you have to squabble about. Certainly not trade deals. Or immigration. Or food supply. Or traffic jams. Or the Irish border. Or the very survival of the union. Or, or, or.

Obviously, Johnson’s trade deal and the end of the transition period means that, at least in any immediate sense, the question of Brexit is decided for a generation. Britain has left the EU, and that is that. But as I have previously written, Brexit was always a destination, never a road map. The same is true for the post-Brexit settlement. What the UK looks like — or if it even exists as currently constituted — five, ten, twenty years from now will be decided in the coming months and years.

Okay, it’s definitely because he is fit. I mean, look at him. Wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating biscuits, that’s all I’m saying.

A photo of British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak MP staring at the camera, smiling and wearing a business suit
A photo of British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak MP staring at the camera, smiling and wearing a business suit
Dishy Rishi

The love affair with the Chancellor of the Exchequer puzzles me, though. Sure, he’s easy on the eyes, but he’s hard on the heart. Touted as a future Prime Minister, Sunak has received praise from Boris Johnson (natch) and *checks notes* Bernie Sanders. Blimey.

Yet, despite his dashing good looks and comparatively-not-awful coronavirus response, it is important to remember what Rishi is. A former investment banker, he attended Winchester College before graduating from Oxford. Not exactly a man of the people.

It’s his policies that concern me, though, not his background. Dishy Rishi may be tasty, but he is still a Tory. One study found that a decade of Tory austerity had cost over 100,000 lives, and Sunak — though resisting calls form Conservative backbenchers to commit to future cuts during the pandemic — is a fiscal conservative just like his predecessors. As Polly Toynbee wrote late last year, “don’t imagine largesse will repair the damage done in the last decade,” a decade in which every citizen lost 25% in public spending, the NHS saw its budget slashed to shreds, public services were decimated, and councils lost more than half their government grants.

Rishi’s coronavirus releif commitments only extend through next April. Once the pandemic is behind is, I expect him to revert to form. He is a Tory in Labour clothing, but only for now, and only because he had nothing else to wear.

I am a repentant Corbynista. I backed Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest, but by 2016 it had become clear to me that this man was not fit to lead a conga line, much less Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. In the 2020 election I backed Jess Phillips until she dropped out (such a shame), but I have been passively impressed with Keir Starmer. I do wonder, though, what Jezza is up to these days. I assume he has retired to his allotment, where he is happily growing courgettes and petting El Gato.

What’s that? What do you mean he said that antisemitism was overstated for political reasons? No, I quite agree that does not sound like something someone who is not antisemitic would say. They suspended him? Good. He was reinstated soon after? Oh, pity that. And some of his most ardent supporters in the PLP are looking to make things difficult for Stamer from the backbenches? What’s Jezza say about this? Nothing? Oh, well, that’s a pity too.

Joking aside, the problem of leadership was Jeremy Corbyn, but the problem of the Labour hard left — insomuch as they are a problem, as it’s important to note they raise many good and crucial points — was never going to go away simply because a more centrist Starmer won the leadership contest. Corbyn was a weak and ineffectual leader who lost two general elections, which is one more than he should have been allowed to lose. His time is done, and to his credit, I think he largely realises that. From where I sit (which admittedly is across the ocean), he’s kept mostly a low profile, especially when considering the support he still enjoys. But the Labour civil war still rages, with #StarmerQuits trending a few days back as jubilant Corbynistas predicted the imminent end of Sir Keir’s leadership (they were wrong). What happens next? That’s a genuine question.

Sir Ed Davey won the 2020 Liberal Democratic leadership race. Of course, you could be forgiven for not knowing there had been a 2020 Liberal Democratic leadership race. Yet, as the Guardian succinctly put it in a headline, they did in fact elect their fourth leader in five years. Ed Davey beat Layla Moran, who I do know from her big glasses and frequent appearances on the news. But the last I can really remember hearing about the party, aside from the aforementioned leadership contest, is when their previous leader (well, one of them) lost her seat at the 2019 election. How embarrassing.

A photo of Layla Moran MP wearing a business suit and looking directly at the camera
A photo of Layla Moran MP wearing a business suit and looking directly at the camera
Layla Moran has the coolest glasses. I also like her necklace

This raises the awkward but pressing question of what exactly is the point of the Liberal Democrats? At one time the party made sense for folks who were so disenchanted with the right and the left that they craved a centrist alternative. But what good is a centrist party when there are so few centrists left in the country? The UK is the most polarised it has been in decades, certainly the most polarised it has been in the 11 years since I started writing about politics. What future lies ahead for the Lib Dems? Again, that’s a genuine question.

Dominic Cummings. Good riddance, eh? Watching spadss and MPs break the Covid rules has been infuriating, and I am not even British. Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle was almost as outrageous as the story spun to explain it, and almost as maddening as Boris’ defence of it.

That is nothing compared to Margaret Ferrier. The suspended SNP MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West tested positive for Covid, then got on a train from Glasgow to London. No, you read that right: she got on a train heading down the length of Britain after testing positive for Covid. She was recently arrested for it, and rightly so.

Both Cummings and Ferrier beg the question: how are people supposed to trust their leaders when it is apparent their leaders feel its “one rule for thee, another for me?” Faith in government and institutions is perilously low, and the flouting of Covid restrictions by people who fancy themselves our “betters” only serves to further diminish that trust. How we (and I understand I’m using “we” loosely here) come back from that, I don’t know.

I think that about covers it. If you can think of anything else I need to know, leave a comment below. Otherwise, I’m going to make like a fox who’s just seen Joylon Maugham in a bathrobe and sling my hook before you bash my head in for being where I shouldn’t. Ah, 2019. A simpler time.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics and culture for more than a decade. His work has appeared at The Independent, Salon, and elsewhere

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