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 third-biggest.

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 happening.

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 end.

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 restored.

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?