Americans, don’t look to the British elections for a referendum on Trump


U.S. observers often view elections abroad through our own familiar lenses. That is common. Consider how the June 2016 Brexit vote often was put into the context of what it might mean for the rise of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and the U.S. national elections. Or how the recent first-round French presidential race outcome became another indicator of the influence of Trump-like nationalist and anti-immigrant movements in the Western world.

The trouble is that, although reverting to the familiar makes analyses of these foreign campaigns more comprehensible to a U.S. audience, it can lead to an over-simplification and outright misleading conclusions.

{mosads}So let’s exercise some caution regarding the June elections in Great Britain. We fully expect major U.S. media to cover the likely-Prime Minister Theresa May landslide as further evidence of the rise of an anti-establishment politics in the West, the same kind of shakeup that led to Brexit, Trump, and second place finish of Marine Le Pen. Further, we await analyses of how her victory is another feather in the cap of Trump.


In reality, the British election has almost nothing to do with Trump or really anything happening in the U.S.

Here’s why:

Prime Minister Theresa May has tried, with some success, to co-opt the Brexit mantle for herself.  However, in general, she is about as establishment as you get and is extremely cautious.  She opposed Brexit, though not loudly, and as Prime Minister has said little beyond accepting the popular will on Brexit.  As she has generally passed on expressing detailed opinions, she embodies the hopes of the Brexiteers who seek a “hard Brexit,” as well as the Remainers who seek continued close ties to Europe.  

She is no kind of populist, and her campaign is notable mostly for its empty platitudes (We fully expect Ladbrokes to start taking daily over/under bets on her use of the phrase “strong and stable government“).  A Tory vote is, if anything, a vote for careful continuation of an ill-defined status quo.

Her message actually is anti-Trumpian: strength, stability, and continuation, even at the risk of short term upheaval caused by calling an election she had previously said would be destabilizing.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, has no analogue in American politics.  Almost no one seriously views him as a potential Prime Minister, and even many Labour MPs, who have already tried dumping him once, openly say this.  In short, he is not a viable vessel for any protest vote, either from establishment anti-Brexiters or blue-collar populists.  A vote for Corbyn is a vote for more radical change than May.

The biggest parties are still divided on Brexit.  Labour is hopelessly divided, and the Tory pro-EU wing is still there, if chastened.  A voter wanting to make a statement on Brexit would have to vote for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), or the Scottish National Party (SNP).  Interestingly, in polls so far none of these parties is showing significant gains.

Each party seems to be running on different agendas and issues.  The Tories are running on stability, platitudes, and Brexit without definition.  Labour is pushing a more equal society.  Liberal Democrats are running a one issue anti-Brexit campaign.  UKIP wants to leave Europe at all costs and kick the immigrants out. The SNP wants another referendum on independence.  The Northern Irish, as ever,have bigger problems with the recent collapse of the power sharing agreement and devolved governments that go with it.  

All this makes it nearly impossible to divine any meaning from the vote.

Indeed, the British election is several elections in one.  The elections in Scotland (which will center around independence) and Northern Ireland (which runs on a completely different party system) bear almost no commonality with what is going on in England or Wales.

A major difference with the U.S. system is that Great Britain has a multiparty system with first past the post.  This obviously inflates plurality opinion, particularly in Scotland.  But also, very few individual seats are seriously contested by more than two parties.  So, a substantial number of voters vote tactically, more concerned with keeping somebody out than putting someone in.

With prominent figures such as former prime minister Tony Blair openly pushing these sorts of interparty alliances, tactical voting may be even more prominent than ever this year.  This situation also complicates any effort to read any meaning into the vote.

In short, too many multi-faceted factors will go into this election, and none will have anything to do with the U.S.  Reading anything into an election under these circumstances is dicey, let alone discerning any meaning for the U.S.

We thus concede only one very superficial analogue: like 2016 in the U.S., observers of the British elections are very confident in their prediction that May will handily win. Maybe.  The polls certainly favor her significantly more than they ever did regarding the “remain” vote in the referendum.  

We don’t pretend to know the future. We do nonetheless posit a long-shot scenario that would rival the Trump surprise. Should May continue to run a cautious and vapid campaign (likely), and the Liberal Democrats galvanize the anti-Brexit vote (plausible, but does not appear to be happening), and Corbyn can convince most of the irate Labour voters to come home (unlikely), things could actually get interesting.  

It is unlikely that Labour could form a government in that scenario, but May could be left with another tiny majority or another hung Parliament, which would leave her in even worse position having decisively failed to obtain the mandate she sought.  

In any event, none of this would have much of anything to say about our American situation. Stay tuned.

Whet Smith is an attorney and former GOP nominee for the Texas state assembly. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video