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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 21, May 16, 2015

Britain Votes for Stability

Saturday 16 May 2015

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

Confounding all the pollsters who had predicted a hung Parliament following the general elections held in Britain on 7 May 2015 the British Prime Minister and Conservative leader, David Cameron, has won an extraordi-nary victory and will remain the Prime Minister for another five years. With nearly all results declared, the Conservatives have won 331 seats in a House of Commons of 650 which is a slender but clear majority. Cameron had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats following the general elections in 2010 as the Tories had won only 307 seats then and had fallen short of the required number of 326. However, this time he has the numbers and will be able to govern on his own without having to depend on any outside support.

Some analysts are asserting that not since the fall of Margaret Thatcher as the Tory leader in 1990 or the landslide achieved by Tony Blair of the Labour Party in 1997 has there been a political moment quite like this one. There is no doubt that this victory is a personal triumph for David Cameron. However, what is even more astonishing is the scale of victory of the Scottish Nationalist Party led by Nicola Sturgeon who won a staggering 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. These two personal victories will not just reshape British politics but could perhaps reshape the future of the United Kingdom itself.

The elections have been a disaster for the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties who could win only 232 and eight seats respectively which is a huge comedown from the figures they had in the outgoing Parliament, namely, 258 and 57. Not surprisingly, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and the Liberal Democratic leader and Deputy Prime Minister in the outgoing government, Nick Clegg, have resigned as party leaders owning moral responsibilities for the defeats. This is sure to lead to months of soul-searching for their parties as they rue the loss of some of their most famous faces who just vanished in a brutal electoral storm. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which is fiercely anti-European Union and anti-immigrant, could manage only one seat though they won 13 per cent of the popular votes which was not enough to be converted into seats due to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Ironically, the Liberal Democrats won eight seats though they could muster only eight per cent of the popular vote.

These elections are likely to open up wide cracks in British politics. A preliminary analysis of the election results leads to the conclusion that those who voted for the Conservatives did so as they wanted a stable government for the next five years. This is what explains why the Conservatives managed to garner 37 per cent of the popular votes though the opinion polls gave them only 34 per cent. There is no doubt that the stability factor played an important role in the minds of the swing voters as they cast their ballots. At the same time those who voted Conservative mostly come from the more affluent sections of the British society. A great many Labour, Liberal Democrat and also some Conservative votes have gone to the UKIP, the Greens and a few other newly emerged parties making British politics far more splintered than ever before.

However, the most devastating consequence of these elections is the clean sweep achieved by the SNP in Scotland which was the traditional preserve of the Labour Party. Labour has now been wiped out in Scotland leaving the SNP to be the sole representative of the Scottish people. During the election campaign the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, bitterly attacked the Tories and their policies and the victory of the Conservatives, who got all their seats in England, and the SNP landslide in Scotland have led to the question as to whether these elections will ultimately spell the end of the United Kingdom.

It may be pertinent to note here that the SNP has fought for Scottish independence for the past 80 years and it was at their behest that a referendum on whether Scotland should stay in the UK was held in September 2014 when 55 per cent of Scottish voters voted to preserve the union. As of now, Nicola Sturgeon has struck a conciliatory posture on the question of Scottish independence and wishes to work within the union.

However, the real test for the union will come when the elections to the Scottish Parliament are held next year and if the SNP repeats the present electoral feat the pressure on the party to call for another referendum in the near future will become irresistible.

In the meantime the SNP will be arguing strongly for constitutional change. There is a question-mark as to whether the proposals in the Smith Commission for further devolution of power to Edinburgh will be enough to satisfy this new army of SNP MPs at Westminster. It may further be asked if this result is a signal that Scottish voters want more radical reform, a change to the first-past-the-post voting system perhaps or even a complete restructuring of the UK along federal lines. During the election campaign the SNP leader had even talked of “legitimacy” which she may well feel she has achieved now. That will be her watchword in the coming days as she argues that the Prime Minister cannot ignore the democratic will of the Scottish people. As one commentator remarked, “politically Scotland and England this morning look and feel like very different countries”.

For the Labour Party these elections have introduced an existential crisis, especially in Scotland, where Labour was traditionally the dominant party for years. A substantial proportion of Labour MPs used to come from Scotland in the years when the party gained a majority of seats at Westminster. However, with Scotland virtually slipping out of its grip Labour will be hard pressed for winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons in a future election as it is unlikely to be compensated for its Scottish losses in England where the Tories are now the dominant party. All the big names in the Scottish Labour Party have been trounced in the polls and it will be a huge challenge for Labour to win back the support of the Scottish people who now look upon the SNP as their saviour. Ironically enough, a majority of the Scottish people probably still wish to retain the union with England though, as mentioned earlier, they would prefer Scotland to get a lot more autonomy. In any case both the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties will have to begin a fundamental rethink over their future direction.

So far as the Conservatives are concerned, a small majority will much empower the Tory MPs which will necessitate the PM to have a better whips office to handle rebellions. At times Cameron may even need support from other parties to get business through. Though Cameron has declared that he will govern for the whole of UK, his party has already sent feelers that the government will not be dictated by the SNP which may place the Tories and the SNP on a collision course.

Cameron has also promised a referendum in 2017 on whether the UK will continue to be a member of the European Union. Britain has a long history of being an “awkward partner” in the EU. Fundamental differences have emerged in recent times between David Cameron and his EU counterparts on the future course of EU integration. Cameron and his party want back a substantial amount of power that has been transferred to the EU from the member-states. Such a position might set Britain again on a collision course with its EU partners. If the issue is brought before British voters, its outcome is impossible to guess at the moment.

Finally what does a Cameron victory mean for India? It is safe to bet that the Indian foreign policy establishment will not be unhappy with these results as Cameron is seen as an Indophile who has visited India three times during his Prime Ministership. Cameron has expressed his keenness to strengthen the ties between India and the UK many times. The UK is the second largest trade partner of India in the EU. India’s social, educational and cultural links with the UK are strong. With Cameron in office for another five years, Indo-British relations are likely to gain fresh mileage.

Overall the outcome of the British general elections held on May 7 has not only been extraordinary in the sense that it has proved again that opinion polls are not always reliable; it has also opened up a host of new questions in regard to the nature and future direction of British politics as well as the future of the United Kingdom itself. Cameron may have outfoxed his opponents by winning an outright majority but the next five years will be a real test of his leadership as he deals with his own party, the SNP and the EU. His success or failure in handling these issues will not only determine the future of the United Kingdom itself but also its place in the increasingly complex world.

The author is a Professor of International Relations, and former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He can be contacted at e-mail: purusottam.bhattacharya@gmail.com