At 10 PM on 7 May, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, was at his constituency home in Doncaster, drafting a victory speech. Voting in Britain’s long awaited, deeply divisive, general election had just ended; and Miliband was confident he would emerge from the count as Britain’s prime minister. For an awkward politician, with an adenoidal voice, geeky habits and a striking physical resemblance to an accident- prone cartoon character (Wallace, from the Oscar-winning film The Wrong Trousers), this would be a remarkable achievement. But then the exit polls dropped, and, in the reliably stunning way of democracy, Miliband’s world caved in.
His hopes of becoming prime minister had always said more about the weakness of his main opponent, the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, than Labour’s strength. Having failed to win a majority in 2010— which produced Britain’s second hung parliament since World War II—the Tories had been ruling in coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats. To increase their share of seats in this election looked impossible. Incumbents almost never manage that, and the Tories, though grimly respected for their tough economic management, had done little to endear themselves to British voters. Having inherited a vast budget deficit and tough economy from their New Labour predecessors, Cameron’s coalition had overseen a regime of swingeing spending cuts; a million public sector jobs had been axed. And assuming the Tories lost seats, as the pollsters predicted they would, Miliband’s party looked much better placed to form an alternative governing coalition.
Yet the exit polls, the source of the gawky Labour leader’s sudden agony, turned that logic on its head. Confounding months of opinion polls, which had shown a deadlock between the Tories and Labour, they suggested voters had turned out for the Tories in droves—putting the party within a few seats of the magic number, 323, required to have an effective majority in the House of Commons. At first, Mr Miliband and his advisors struggled to believe it— for how could months of the most sophisticated opinion polling, weighted and measured to account for every established bias in the British electorate, be so far off-beam? Yet as the actual results started, a few hours later, to come in, it soon became clear that, far from exaggerating the Tories’ victory, the exit polls had undercooked it.
In the 80-odd English seats aggressively targeted by Labour, either because the Tories held them with slim majorities, or because their working-class residents seemed desperate for change, the Tories mostly held on. In Nuneaton, Swindon South, Battersea and other such places, the Tories did not collapse, but strengthened their grip. In Wales, a traditional Labour fief, they actually gained seats.
In a pitiless gesture, the Tories meanwhile crushed their erstwhile allies, the Liberal Democrats, even as Labour suffered the same fate at the hands of the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP); Miliband’s party lost 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland. By the time dawn broke on 8 May, it was clear that the Tories had won a wholly unpredicted majority— and that Miliband’s party had suffered its worst defeat in three decades.
A few hours later, British politics resembled the closing scene in Hamlet, with bodies littering the stage. In a gracious resignation speech, delivered before weeping Labour apparatchiks, Miliband thanked his supporters for the “most unlikely cult of the 21st century”—a Twitter campaign, #Milifandom, intended to turn the Labour leader into a geeky pin-up. Then he was gone, vacating a job he had rarely seemed up to, even as the two-tonne limestone tablet (nickname: the ‘Ed stone’) he had ill-advisedly had engraved with this campaign pledges was being carted embarrassedly away to a south London lock-up.
Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, also resigned, with tears streaming down his cheeks, having seen his party reduced to just eight MPs. Squeezed by the SNP in Scotland, where the Lib Dems retained only their northernmost outpost, Shetland and Orkney, whose culture is almost as Scandinavian as it is Scottish, and by the Tories and right-wing UK Independence Party in England (UKIP), Clegg foretold a glum future for the great liberal tradition the Lib Dems claimed to uphold. “This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart,” he warned.
Meanwhile, one of the main agents of that divisiveness, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, was also tendering his resignation, as he had promised to do in the event that he failed to win the Kent seat of Thanet South. Only, it soon turned out, Farage didn’t really intend to resign at all. A couple of days later he announced that, much as he had tried to, his party had refused to accept his resignation letter. Having now failed seven times to enter the House of Commons, Farage will now try to make it eight times lucky.
Perhaps, to an Indian reader, these sound like humdrum political scenes. For, of course, no orderly British election can compare to the colour, volume and verve of an Indian one. (“Can you explain something to me?” beseeched a foreign correspondent from Hindustan Times, sent to London in the thick of the campaign, “I know there’s an election going on. But where is it?”) All the same, by staid European standards, Britain’s electoral drama, and the multiple decapitations it triggered, was intense. And their repercussions may be momentous.
In the short-term the outcome is positive, having allayed fears of a messy result and political crisis; the pound surged against the dollar as soon as the exit polls landed. It has also eased a deeper anxiety over the viability of Britain’s hoary political system, whose adversarial culture and first-past-the-post electoral system are increasingly a turn-off to voters, especially those who support the smaller parties it is biased against. UKIP and the Greens together won almost 5 million votes in this election; yet only one seat each. That is egregious, a sure way to turn frustrated voters into disaffected non-voters. Yet the British system has always been defended— with usually a snooty comment on Continental Europe’s perennially messy coalitions—on the basis that it at least produces clear results, and so it has again transpired. With 37 per cent of the votes cast, the Tories have won 331 seats, or 57 per cent of the total, giving them a majority of 12 seats. With that, bang goes any prospect of electoral reform in Britain.
For indebted western economies, the result has a wider significance. All European governments need to cut spending at a time when sluggish economic growth, low productivity rates and the disruptive, often job-destroying, effects of globalisation and technology are making this hard to square with voters. That Cameron, whose coalition government trumpeted its austerity policies more aggressively than any other Western government, has nonetheless managed to strengthen its electoral grip is remarkable—and a necessary fillip for other battling European governments. This has, in turn, won Cameron a measure of authority in the European Union, which he now urgently needs—having committed to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, and hold an ‘in-out’ referendum on it within the next couple of years.
The economy and the rise of Scottish nationalism—as was manifest in last year’s near-miss Scottish independence referendum—dominated Cameron’s first term. Europe seems certain to dominate his second, which is not good news for Britain. Because the possibility that it might quit the EU, the world’s biggest free trade zone, would be disastrous.
In 2013, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was worth £364 billion, over a third of which can perhaps be attributed to the trade-boosting effects of the union. British business—and big investors in Britain, such as Tata, the country’s biggest industrial employer—are therefore united in support of EU membership. That they mostly backed the Tories over Labour in this election was a sign of how haplessly the left-wing Miliband had alienated them.
A British exit from the EU—or ‘Brexit’ as this is increasingly known—would also cause havoc for the union. Its other members are often annoyed by Britain’s hectoring manner and criticism of the EU, which, unlike Britain, a rarely-conquered island, they tend to see as much as a tool for European peace as for European prosperity. Nonetheless, they would shudder to see Britain, the union’s third biggest economy and militarily most capable member, leave. This would instantly diminish the EU and raise further questions about its ability to hold together. It would also be a poor lookout for America, China, India and other big trade partners of the EU; all will, for this reason, have watched Cameron’s electoral triumph anxiously.
With much at stake, the campaign to keep Britain in Europe now begins in earnest. Cameron, who, unlike many in his party, is quietly determined to remain in Europe, has appointed his right-hand and chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms. He is likely to demand a shortlist of changes, including a tougher welfare regime for intra-EU migrants and assurances that members of the Eurozone will not gang up on members such as Britain that retain their own currency. Germany, the EU’s prime mover, will be broadly sympathetic; like Britain, it wants a more competitive, less meddlesome, European Union. Yet there is plenty that could go wrong with Cameron’s referendum gambit—including a small but real prospect that, whatever package of reforms they are presented with, British voters will vote to leave.
The longer Cameron waits to hold the referendum, the likelier that probably becomes. Because elections on the European Union, including the despised EU parliament’s polls, almost invariably end up as verdicts on the national governments that hold them. The risk of Cameron holding a mid-term referendum, at a time when support for his government will probably be flagging, is that this could create fertile conditions for the feared Brexit. If he can manage it, Cameron would therefore prefer to hold the ‘in-out’ referendum to next year.
Meanwhile, the risk of Scotland quitting the UK is probably mounting, on the back of the SNP’s electoral success. Having held only six of Scotland’s 59 seats in the previous parliament, the separatists now have 56. The Tories have only one—which sharpens one of the SNP’s main argument for independence: that left-wing Scottish voters should not be subjected to Tory governments in Westminster they do not vote for. The tension this puts the union under may turn out to be even greater than Miliband’s alternative government—a loose alliance between Labour and the SNP—would have done. That would be ironic, because during the campaign the Tories relentlessly warned English voters that a vote for Labour would be a vote to let the SNP in. Yet Cameron is at least now trying to cool the cross-party antipathy such rhetoric engendered. “I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom together,” he declared on election night. Implementing a round of promised devolution to Scots will kickstart that process. But whether it will re-knit or further loosen the bonds of union is unclear. Giving Scotland’s devolved government more power to raise and spend its own money, as promised, could teach Scots a belated lesson in how generously they are currently subsidised by the British state. And if they regret losing that bounty, English taxpayers would be extraordinarily loath to renew it.
According to polling carried out for The Economist, 70 per cent of Britons, if given the choice, would pay nothing to keep Scotland in the union. No wonder almost half, the same polling suggests, think Scotland will become independent in the next two decades.
Labour’s dreadful showing in Scotland has made that even more likely. Because it threatens the demise of what is, following the Tories’ earlier collapse in Scotland, Britain’s last truly national party. It is hard to know what could reverse that process: Labour’s limpid social democracy is a frail shield against rampant nationalism. Moreover, Labour’s next leader, who will be elected by September, is unlikely to worry about Scotland much.
The party’s wipe-out north of Carlisle was at least predicted. More astonishing, and alarming for Labour, were the inroads into its English vote-bank made by the English nationalists of UKIP. This probably helped the Tories hold or gain many marginal seats. And unless Labour can find a way to stanch that outflow, of disaffected working-class voters, it risks seeing its losses to the Scottish nationalists repeated, at the next election, at the hands of English ones.
That would be a disaster for British democracy. It would promise a period of unbroken Tory rule, which would in turn make Scotland’s exit from the union almost inevitable, and perhaps also Britain’s from the EU. It would be a dreadful prospect, and easily imaginable, which is probably the best reason to bet against it. Suddenly, nothing about British politics seems predictable. On a damp island, on the western edge of Europe, these are strange political times.