LONDON - With giant opinion poll leads over their opponents, Britain’s Conservatives have never entered a general election as popular — not even at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s power in the 1980s.
Positioned to secure an overwhelming majority in the country’s House of Commons, the Tories, as they’re known colloquially, are gleeful that next month’s parliamentary polls will likely leave the main opposition Labour Party led by the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn in ruins.
But the prospect of a huge Conservative majority is leaving some commentators — including a few who support the party — alarmed at what the broader impact might be for the country when it comes to post-election government restraint, accountability and acknowledgment of minority rights.
The worries mounted this week as the parties started to campaign in earnest in an election that risks becoming totally dominated by the country’s vote last June to leave the European Union. Labour is trying to shift the focus of the election on to the woeful state of public services, traditionally its strong ground. But it had a clumsy start to its campaign when top Labour lawmaker Diane Abbot drew hoots of media derision after stumbling badly on a major radio show Tuesday about the party’s funding pledge on increasing police numbers.
The Tories pounced immediately pointing to the interview as evidence that their main electoral opponents cannot be trusted with public money. Recent polls suggest the Tories may be trusted more than Labour by the public when it comes to running the country’s national health service — a major shift in public sentiment.
Political commentator Iain Martin, who’s a Brexit supporter, worries about the consequences of a huge Tory win for British democracy. “As someone who voted for Brexit, this should be giving me a warm feeling inside, on the basis that a large majority on June 8 will bolster the prime minister’s authority in the negotiations to come,” he notes.
“Instead, I feel only deep disquiet about the likely scale of the Tory victory and what it means. Beyond Brexit, this election gives me the heebie-jeebies,” he wrote in a column for The Times.
British political philosophers in the classical liberal tradition — like their counterparts in the U.S. — have long worried about the dangers of over-strong governments.
The theme was one the Founding Fathers in the U.S. also explored, including John Adams, whose phrase “tyranny of the majority” is being bandied about now in Britain.
Even before Prime Minister Theresa May announced last month a snap poll, flying in the face of previous pledges not to call an early parliamentary election, there were worries that the Conservatives were riding roughshod over dissent.
Concerns among Torries
In the wake of June’s divisive Brexit referendum, which saw 52 percent of voters backing Brexit, some Tory heavyweights expressed concern about May’s determination to interpret the result as support for a hard break from the economic bloc, Britain’s largest trading partner. They have fulminated at her government’s decision to withdraw from the Single Market, theoretically something it could maintain access to even after giving up EU membership, if it would agree Europeans can live and work in Britain without constraints.
Speaking on the BBC, Ken Clarke, a former Thatcher-era minister, who served also in the Cabinet of May’s predecessor David Cameron, complained earlier this year, “the tyranny of the majority [is] being used to silence people’s opinions.” He argues the reservations of 48 percent of the voters who didn’t back Brexit are being ignored and that they shouldn't be, as it isn't clear a majority of the country favors a hard Brexit.
A former civil service head of the country’s Foreign Office, John Kerr, who served as an envoy in both Washington and Brussels, has publicly castigated May for allowing the hard right of the party to dictate Britain’s policy towards the EU.
The naysayers are being treated with scorn by Tory diehards. Spectator magazine writer Ross Clark has dismissed talk about the “tyranny of the majority,” as absurd, arguing, “the whole basis of democracy is that the majority gets its way.”
The bulk of Conservative lawmakers and activists see no need to worry about the consequences of a big electoral win in June. For them the “tribal urge,” as Martin dubs it, “runs strongest when so many parliamentary seats are there for the taking.”