July 10, 2017 37th and O

Hoyas Abroad: On Witnessing the UK’s Snap Elections

by Edward Weizenegger

It was the evening of June 8th—or rather, 8 June—and across the United Kingdom polls had just closed in 2017’s snap general election. The HoyasInUK had spent the last several days in a whirlwind of political temperature-taking in and around London. We held discussions with a thorough cross section of the political class, from a senior reporter at the BBC, the Senior Advisor to the Conservative Party campaign, to pollsters and even two candidates themselves running to be seated in Parliament. Along the way we conversed with average Britons in the streets, on the Tube, and anywhere else they were willing to entertain a dozen information-hungry American politicos. After all this, we were as anxious as anyone on the island to see how the votes would finally tally.

I walked into a pub and approached a table of men, splitting open peanut shells with their interest seemingly fixed on the football match being broadcast on the lone television. When I asked where we might find a place get some food and drinks and watch the election results roll in in realtime—like any reasonable Washingtonian—they were taken aback. “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” I was asked quizzically. I decided against trying to persuade these locals of the merits of treating the sacred ceremony of democracy with the spirit of extravagant spectacle they might approach a World Cup match with.

This was one of the many moments when I was struck by how differently the British public comported themselves in election season than we do here in the United States. In many ways it would have been hard to tell that a course defining election for the country was even underway, with television programming clean of painstakingly focus-grouped advertisements, and nary a yard sign broadcasting one’s allegiances to the neighbors to be found. And yet, the calmest waters often belie deceptively turbulent currents running just below the surface.

One thing that nearly all of the well-informed, eminent, and engaged observers from the varied corners of the British political world that we were fortunate enough to meet had in common was that they were flatly wrong about how millions of their countrymen were about to express themselves in the voting booth. There can be no feeling of superiority in this fact, because of course less than a year ago the vast majority of the American political establishment was historically blindsided by President Donald Trump’s electoral triumph. Strikingly, this electoral surprise towards more a progressive liberalism would seem to be in a much different direction than the nationalist-tinged populism that ushered in both Brexit and the Trump administration.

When reflecting on this trip, I will always remember the thrilling sweep of history imparted from roaming the grounds of the Tower of London with a Beefeater for a tour guide, and the marvelous vista of one of the world’s grandest capitals afforded at the apex of the London Eye. I will also remember being on the ground level of yet another tremor that insists the political plates are shifting beneath us. A deep disconnect remains between the political establishment and the electorate—particularly the younger, often written-off voters who, in June’s election, refused to accept the economic fatalism we are told millennials are heir to. From recapturing some former greatness to realizing a more social democracy, voters are responding to distinct—if widely disparate—visions of how the future need not be beholden to the failings of the present. As a student of politics, it was a privilege to witness firsthand the writings of a new and promising chapter in our shared history.

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