Labour or Tory, the 7 May election poses a big threat to the United Kingdom. JAMES ASTILL takes a train ride with Prime Minister David Cameron to gauge the mood of a politically broken Britain
James Astill | 30 Apr, 2015
“What’s at stake is the future of our economy, but frankly, actually the future of our country too.” Framed by a backdrop of green and pleasant English fields, as his train whizzes north, David Cameron’s warnings of national calamity might feel easy to shrug off. Britain is holding a general election on 7 May and campaigning politicians always do issue dread warnings against their rivals. Yet, to an unnerving degree, Cameron, whom your correspondent was accompanying on a five-constituency, five-speech day last week, was right. Whichever party wins the election, whether his Tories or Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, the result is likely to exacerbate a growing and historic uncertainty about British democracy—and perhaps Britain’s future as a united country.
Over the course of a deeply unsatisfying campaign, in which the vitriolic abuse levelled at one another by Britain’s political leaders has been matched by a supreme indifference on the part of voters, the polls have stayed stuck. The Tories and Labour are level-pegging, with around 65 per cent of the vote between them. A second consecutive hung parliament—only the third since 1945—is almost guaranteed. But unlike in 2010, when the Tories fell 19 seats short of a majority (they won 307 out of a possible 650 seats) and formed a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, this time the electoral verdict looks likely to be much messier.
On current form, no party will reach 300 seats, and the Lib Dems, Britain’s third party, have collapsed. In 2010, they won almost a quarter of the vote and 56 seats. Now they are polling less than 10 per cent and will be lucky to keep half their seats. This is likely to mean Cameron or Miliband needing at least two allies to make a government, assuming that that is even possible, which will in turn ensure that who gets to form the government may be as much a case of electoral happenstance as national verdict. This has never happened in British politics before. The sorts of government British commentators now envisage— perhaps comprising, on the one hand, the Tories, Lib Dems and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); or, on the other, Labour, the Lib Dems and Scotland’s separatist Scottish National Party (SNP)— would a few months back have seemed unimaginable.
Why does this matter, an Indian reader, in particular, might ask? After all, Indian governments frequently encompass much bigger and more unmanageable combinations than this. The BJP’s triumphant majority in last year’s Lok Sabha election was a stunning exception; its UPA predecessor had a dozen constituent parties and more outside supporters. And if its record ended ingloriously, the UPA Government at least hung together pretty well, all things considered. Yet what is happening in British democracy, one of the world’s oldest, does matter to Britain’s future, for four big reasons.
It matters, first, because the British system is unused to, and not easily remade to accommodate, such an unclear verdict as looks likely next month. In India’s diffuse system, the diversity of state party and government representatives in New Delhi ensures that any government, even the current one, is to some degree a coalition. Even if Narendra Modi controls his party, he does not control most of the states, where power in India increasingly resides. The Westminster system, worked out over centuries in a much smaller and, until comparatively recently, somewhat predictable society, is in many ways designed to be occupied by just two parties, historically including Tories and Whigs, Tories and Liberals, Tories and Labour. Each has taken its turn to form a majority government or, when in opposition, barrack its opponents, and British democracy reflects this straightforward duality and the intensely combative, winner- takes-all culture it has engendered. In the House of Commons, the governing and opposition benches face each other, at a distance two swords’ lengths apart, across which British politicians still hurl as much foul abuse at each other as they ever have. That is not a recipe for the collaborative, consensus-based, politics of coalition that Britain suddenly needs.
Whatever government emerges next month will probably be determined largely by local electoral circumstances and coalition dynamics—and yet, for the second reason why this electoral confusion matters, the choice between Miliband and Cameron is a fundamental one. The opposition leader is Britain’s most left-wing frontline leader since the 1970s. He would bring a deeply interventionist view of the state’s role in markets—there is scarcely one, whether in energy, the rental sector, or even Premiership football, he does not want to re-regulate and improve—which is already terrifying British business and which British voters seem hardly to have registered. Perhaps it would go well for him; there are certainly deep problems, including poor skills and an endemic culture of short-termism in British capitalism. Yet a dose of Milibandism, at a fragile time for all European economies, would at best represent a considerable risk to Britain’s economic stability.
The third reason why the fragmentation in British politics matters is because of the disaffected national mood it reflects. After going into government with the Tories, the Lib Dems lost two-thirds of their support at a stroke. It turned out most people had been voting Lib Dem not because they wanted the party to govern, but in angry protest against Labour, the Tories and the establishment at large. And, after five years of tough economic circumstance, that anti-politics feeling has grown. Turnout is likely to continue its historic decline next month—especially, most troubling, among younger British voters; fewer than half of 18-24-year-olds voted in 2010. Meanwhile, in this campaign, the anti- establishment vote has shifted from the Lib Dems to less moderate parties, of both the left and right, on a newly vigorous and egregiously populist fringe: populated, for example, by Scotland’s left-wing SNP and the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP).
That takes us to the fourth reason for worry—which concerns what some of these insurgents want to do to Britain. UKIP, trading on a dream of past glory, wants to take it out of the European Union, Britain’s most important international alliance, and seemingly back in time at least a few decades. Its grumpy, pessimistic and typically aged English supporters have an obsessive dislike of immigration, smoking bans, wind turbines and other talismanic features of modern Britain. The SNP does not want to turn the clock back on Britain; it merely wants to dismember it—and these Scottish separatists, who held only six seats in the last parliament, are likely to emerge as Britain’s third biggest party next month, with at least 40 seats. This party’s progress will come largely at the expense of Labour, which has imploded in Scotland. This has ensured that, for Labour to come to power, it almost certainly has to be with the backing of a party dedicated to dismantling Britain: the SNP.
To accompany Cameron on his recent trawl through five marginal constituencies, in Cheshire and Greater Manchester, was to wonder quite why this is happening. The well-heeled Tory prime minister is in many ways a reassuring presence. He is calm amid the opinion-poll-fuelled jitters of his advisors. Compared to many right-wing Tories, he is also moderate, charming and pragmatic—as he has shown in government by pushing gay marriage, overseas aid and other such soft-hued causes. In poll after poll, Britons rate Cameronw their best leader.
British Indians, whose support Cameron has wooed assiduously (he enthuses, aboard the train, about his recent participation in an enormous Baisakhi celebration in Gravesend), have felt the benefit of his charm more than most. Plagued by a historic (and out-of-date, it must be said) reputation for being anti- immigrant, the Tories do badly among non-White voters; this time around, polling suggests, hard-nosed British Indians may be more disposed to vote for them. India has also had Cameron’s attention, the prime minister having tried hard to deepen British-Indian relations, albeit New Delhi has shown little reciprocal interest in this effort. More important for British voters, the single issue on which the Conservative campaign is based, the economic recovery Cameron has presided over, should, on the face of it, be far more compelling than it is.
When he took power, in 2010, the British economy was a shambles: with a double-digit budget deficit, low growth and a crippling credit squeeze bequeathed by the financial crisis of 2008. It has since recovered impressively, creating 2 million new jobs and recording faster growth than any other Western economy last year, even as the Tories have instituted deep spending cuts, cutting the deficit by almost a half. In any previous election of recent times, these advantages, in leadership and economic management, would have guaranteed the Tories a thumping victory. So why are they not far in front?
The main reasons are also economic. Britons have understood, by and large, the need for spending cuts, but they do not love the Tories for carrying them out, as Cameron concedes: “To make a £120 billion fiscal adjustment and have people leaping over themselves with joy is not easy.” More important, the recovery has been patchy, being mainly felt in the prosperous south-east, which has seen a giant house-price boom, though not much in wages anywhere. “It’s been a recovery felt in jobs rather than in increases in pay,” he admits. “You could argue that this has been a more equitable recovery than we’ve had in previous times because more people have got into work more quickly, which is actually spreading the benefit of a growing economy widely… But we know it’s been difficult.”
Yet Cameron’s failure to increase the Tories’ vote-share is not only because of tough times. It also reflects secular socio- economic trends, which are hurting both main parties, as Britain becomes a more class-free, individualistic, consumerist and disorderly society. Among many indicators of this is the relentless decrease in the aggregate vote-share of the Tories and Labour, and crashing party membership. In 1951, the Tories and Labour took 97 per cent of the vote between them, and the Tory party had almost 3 million members. That was the apogee of class-based voting: no matter what their view of either party’s policies, members of the British working-class tended to vote Labour and those of the middle- and upper-class voted Tory. But voters have been steadily shedding those tribal allegiances, as Britain has become a richer, less deferential and in many ways better society, but also a more fractious and complicated one, less obviously bonded by a shared sense of national purpose. The Tories now have a little over 100,000 members, and, as the UKIP insurgency—which has stolen about a fifth of their support—shows, they cannot take the backing of any segment of society for granted.
Change is always complicated; there is no reason per se why this political upheaval should not be manageable. Indeed, in some ways, Britain is merely becoming more like most north European countries, including in Scandinavia, and Germany, where coalition government is the norm. In time, it might be expected, its politicians and voters will accommodate themselves to this. Yet that reckons without the damage to Britain and its place in the world that the SNP and UKIP meanwhile threaten to cause. UKIP, whose jackanapes, beer-swilling leader Nigel Farage is one of Britain’s most popular characters, merely wants to diminish Britain’s status in foreign affairs; the separatist SNP, for Britain’s well-wishers, is far more troubling.
Its rise is astonishing, and additionally fuelled by a confluence of residual Scottish nationalism, left-wing populism, and its remarkable success in making the two appear inextricably tied. Many Scots who would consider themselves above the clarion call of vulgar nationalism have become convinced they are fundamentally different from English voters because they are more left-wing. Opinion polls suggest that is untrue; on most issues, including the optimal size of the state and role of enterprise, Scottish views are in line with the British average. Yet it hardly matters. In the SNP, Scots have found a channel for the raging anti-establishment feeling common to all Britons— thus, the party’s current campaign is based on promise to ‘shake up’ the Westminster system. For that, read ‘break up’, because whatever government is formed next month, the United Kingdom is like to be more enfeebled as a result. If Labour comes to power supported by the SNP, the nationalists will seize the opportunity to lobby for yet more special treatment for Scotland—already Britain’s most heavily subsidised region—which will enrage the English, and at the same time cause as much mischief as they can to discredit the Westminster system even further among Scottish voters.
Having failed to impress voters sufficiently with the Tories’ economic argument, Cameron has increasingly switched to warning of the threat an SNP- Labour tie-up represents to the UK. “It is a really frightening prospect, because it’s about jobs and money, but actually it’s worse than that,” he warns. “Because if this were to happen, the resentment that would build up would put an amazing strain on our United Kingdom. As a passionate unionist, that really, really worries me. I thought this was a high- stakes election anyway, but it’s just got much, much bigger.”
Yet this line also raises a risk to the union. The Tories are widely hated in Scotland—they are popularly blamed for the deindustrialisation that accelerated there under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s—and likely to win only a Scottish seat or two. For Cameron to base his campaign on demonising Scotland’s most popular party might therefore seem to confirm the SNP fiction that Scots are fundamentally different, so in need of their own country. If the Tories make it back to power—with almost no seats in Scotland and the SNP ascendant—this tension will grow. There would then be calls for a rerun of last year’s Scottish independence referendum. And given the unexpected closeness of that result—a 55:45 vote for the status quo, thanks to an especially large turnout by spooked, elderly unionists—it might well turn out differently in that event.
In either scenario, a Labour victory or a Tory one next month, there is a big risk to the United Kingdom. Arguably, a more indeterminate result, potentially leading to protracted coalition negotiations, and perhaps a second election within a year, would be even worse. It would confirm for too many Britons, despite their palpable good fortune in having been born relatively rich and free, that their democracy is broken, which in turn would accelerate their migration to the populist-haunted fringe. To avoid this, Britons at least need a clear electoral verdict next month. But unless the polls start shifting, one or another, they seem determined not to give themselves one.