Britain´s forthcoming election

03.05.15 Publication:

When Britons wake up next Friday morning,May 8th, they will be presented with a strange and confusing
political picture when the results of their general election held the previous
day come through. A country enjoying the fastest economic growth in the European
Union, in which unemployment is now less than half the level in the euro area,
will look politically indecisive, somewhat fractious, and perhaps on the verge
of a constitutional crisis.


In other words, on the basis of the latest
opinion polls, Britain looks like having an election result similar to that of
Italy in February 2013, one which makes it hard for either of the traditional,
mainstream parties to form a government. There looks like being no clear
winner, except for the fact that the pro-independence Scottish National Party
will rise from being a tiny party in our Westminster Parliament to become the


Partly as a consequence of that rise of the
Scots, the two main alternative winning formulas, namely a coalition led by
David Cameron’s Conservative Party, or one led by Edward Miliband’s Labour
Party, will bring the chance of leading the country either to withdrawal from
the European Union or to a break up of the 300-year-old United Kingdom.


How could this be happening? It is a
strange story, in which a country often associated with a certain arrogance, or
at least self-confidence, and generally with a global role that far outweighs
its objective size in terms of GDP or population, is having a kind of identity
crisis. And while that identity crisis has been emerging, the country has been
shrinking in its international influence.


The identity crisis has origins both in the
fairly short term, and in the much longer term. The short-term crisis is the
one that explains why what might be expected to be the natural result of next
Thursday’s election – a clear victory for the governing Conservative Party,
which has presided over Britain’s economic recovery – does not appear to be


Six months ago, Prime Minister David
Cameron probably thought that as the election came nearer, he would be enjoying
an ever-bigger lead in the opinion polls. His opponent, Ed Miliband, looked
weak and uncharismatic, and Labour’s policies had become increasingly
anti-business. So strengthening economic growth and job creation would surely
persuade voters to stick with Mr Cameron and not take a risk with Labour.


They still might, but if they do it will be
by a very narrow margin. The reason appears to come in two parts. First, and
most obviously, strong GDP growth has not been matched by rising incomes and
living standards. Britons have lived through seven years of stagnant or falling
real wages. The unemployed who now have jobs are natural voters for Labour or
perhaps for the anti-EU UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage. Potential
Conservative voters have not yet felt the benefits of recovery.


The second part of the explanation goes
back to the 2008 global financial crisis. This hit all Western countries hard,
but in Britain it also hit hard at the public’s confidence in our economic
model, in our economic prospects, and in the ability of both of the mainstream
parties to govern the country. That crisis brought to an end more than 15 years
of economic growth, and cast a doubt over the way our economy was being
governed that has not yet been removed.


So neither the Conservatives nor their
centrist coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats are being given much real
credit for Britain’s economic recovery. And Labour, as an alternative
government, still carry the responsibility for the 2008 crash, which happened
while they were in power, and for their failure to regulate properly the banks
and the City of London.


It might in fact be healthy if British
voters blame the mainstream political parties for their loss of hope in the
future. One more disruptive alternative is to blame the European Union, and
with it immigrants, which voters were showing signs of doing during 2013 and
2014 as the UK Independence Party rose in the opinion polls and succeeded
spectacularly in the European Parliament elections a year ago.


Yet that mood appears to be fading. Barring
a big surprise next Thursday, the UK Independence Party looks likely to be a
big loser in the election. In May 2014 the party won 27.5% of the vote in the European
elections. In polls for our national elections, they never rose sustainably
above 15%, but have now slipped back from there to between 10% and 12%. The EU
has not suddenly become popular, but it and the troubles of the euro are not
playing quite so big a role in voters’ minds.


The UKIP vote will still harm both
Conservatives and Labour if it is as high as 10-12%, but in Britain’s first
past the post electoral system it is unlikely to bring that party more than two
or three seats. Their leader, Nigel Farage, currently looks like he will fail
to win the seat he is contesting, in south-east England.


By contrast the huge winners of the
election will be the Scottish National Party. Their rise is the product both of
those short-term stresses and anxieties about our economic future and of a much
longer-term identity crisis.


This identity crisis is really one about
how centralized and how “united” the United Kingdom feels comfortable being.
Steadily, over the past 30 years, the 5.3 million residents of Scotland (which
is less than 10% of the UK’s total population) have become more resentful of
being governed from Westminster. This feeling did not begin in the 1980s under
Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, but the harsh recession over which she
presided in the first half of that decade hit Scots hard.


Since then, the Conservative Party has not
won more than a small handful of parliamentary seats in Scotland. So when that
party is in power, Scots feel unrepresented. When Labour is in power, as
between 1997 and 2010, they have felt more involved, as Labour has been strong
in Scotland. But the global financial crisis seems to have brought this to an


Next Thursday, out of the 59 MPs elected
for Scotland in the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Nationalists may well
win more than 50, compared with just 6 in 2010. Labour will lose almost all its
seats. This means that, almost however well Labour fares in the rest of the UK,
it will not be able to govern alone.


What this all reflects is, certainly,
bitterness over the economic crisis. But more profoundly than that, it reflects
a deep British ambivalence about how federal its political system should be.
The official name of our country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Northern Ireland, indicates that in history we have constructed ourselves out
of several previous kingdoms (Wales, Scotland and Ireland). Such a name and
such a history might be expected to be associated with a federal state, rather
as in Switzerland or even the USA.


Instead, the UK has been highly
centralized, becoming even more so under Mrs Thatcher. Finally, in 1998, Tony
Blair’s Labour Party recognized that this was causing resentment, and set up
devolved parliaments in both Wales and Scotland. The restoration of peace in
Northern Ireland allowed a much longer-standing regional government also to be


What we will face from next Friday, May 8th,
onwards, is the question of whether we can now agree upon a properly federal
structure, or whether the UK will break up. The rise of the Scottish National
Party has been driven by the desire for independence, but also for a louder
voice for Scotland in Westminster. That is why they have become even stronger,
despite losing their referendum over independence last September. Opponents of
independence are now also voting for them, simply in order to get a stronger
voice in national politics for their region.


The result is highly unpredictable, as are
the consequences. In the last few days, the Conservatives seem to have
established a small lead in the opinion polls, which might give them the first
chance to try to form a government, even as a minority in Parliament without a
coalition partner. The more viable coalition looks like one between Labour, the
Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists, but Labour has said
vociferously that it will not do a deal with a party that wants to break up the
United Kingdom.


So we could be in for a long period of
political paralysis or instability, just as in Italy in 2013. It doesn’t sound
very British, does it?