I’m writing this on 12th December, as voters in the UK, the country of my birth and my home for 29 years, are choosing their next government. The result will determine whether the next prime minister will be an unprincipled charlatan, with a penchant for racist jokes; or a far-left antisemite, with a record of support for mass-murdering terrorists. Meanwhile in the country I now call home, today was day one of a third election campaign in less than a year.
Elections are supposed to be celebrations of democracy; in both the UK and Israel they are currently a stark symbol of democracies flailing under the weight of populism and godawful leadership.
In Britain, the original sin was the EU referendum of 2016. British democracy is based on the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, that it is the elected representatives of the people who interpret the will of their electorates and try to arrive at policies they would support. Instead, this was a referendum giving a massively uniformed public the responsibility to decide the most fateful political and economic decision the county had faced in 50 years (at least). They had a binary choice: one option which would have created a clear mandate for what happens next (staying in the EU); the other creating an unfathomably complicated mandate (leaving the EU). No one knew what leaving would actually mean, (and we now know that the ‘Leave’ campaign was based in large part on deliberate misinformation and outright lies) and it was left to parliament to interpret the result. But there was no majority in parliament for Brexit; not then, and not after an election was held a year later. Populist Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage claimed that only they represented the “will of the people”; those who tried to find a compromise were “selling-out”, or were even “an enemy of the people” in the language of some populist pro-Brexit tabloids.
Boris Johnson has fully embraced this populist stance since succeeding Theresa May as prime minister, for example suspending parliament to prevent it debating his chosen Brexit formulation – a decision so constitutionally outrageous it was deemed unlawful in a unanimous decision of Britain’s eleven Supreme Court justices.
The alternative to Johnson needs no introduction to Times of Israel readers. Jeremy Corbyn’s career in politics before his shock ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party consisted of a series of statements, speeches and articles condemning the US, Israel, NATO and western democracies generally; whilst defending every conceivable Islamist and antisemitic regime or terrorist.
That this is the choice facing British voters is a shocking indictment of politics in that country.
Here in Israel we perhaps have it a little better (yes you read that correctly). But only because at least one of our candidates for prime minister, Benny Gantz, is a thoroughly decent and capable man, committed to the values of pluralism and democracy. Unfortunately the other candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, has long abandoned such ‘constraints’, adopting the classic populist techniques of demonizing entire sections of society (Arabs, leftists) and delegitimizing the vital gatekeepers of any liberal democracy – the independent judicial system and the free press.
Both countries will need some kind of process of purification to heal the divisions sown by such leaders. In Britain the best case is probably a hung parliament that will result in Johnson returned as prime minister but forced to moderate both his tone and his divisive political agenda. Any result which sees Corbyn in power is too horrendous to contemplate – an institutionally antisemitic political party, with an anti-west ideology, leading one of the world’s great democracies.
In Israel, it’s simple. Netanyahu, indicted for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, must now depart the stage he has occupied for so long. Perhaps it’s not too late for him to do so voluntarily; to put the country first at long last.
Or we the voters will have to force him out. Third time lucky.