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

Political Quake Hits UK But Cameron Returns

Saturday 16 May 2015

by L.K. Sharma

A rare political earthquake shook the United Kingdom and demolished traditional loyalties and beliefs but completely bypassed 10 Downing Street. A visitor to London will see the same old Prime Minister coming out of his official residence and conclude that nothing has changed. Paradoxically, the tectonic shift, far from sweeping away David Cameron, cleared the way for his becoming the Prime Minister for a second term. The 2015 election results made the use of words such as tsunami and tectonic shift quite appropriate. Only Britain can enact a dramatic scene in which change and continuity dance together in perfect harmony!

Cameron has remained the Prime Minister but Britain has changed. The political revolution set off waves of nationalism in Scotland and in England. It gave the third largest number of votes to a fringe party opposed to Europe and the immigrants. It sent into wilderness several top Labour as well as Liberal Democrat leaders. It humiliated the pollsters who had publicised the “certainty of a hung Parliament”. It gave Cameron’s Conservative Party a clear majority.

The political landscape has been transformed. Scotland asserted its separate identity by giving a sweeping victory to its nationalist party, the SNP. The traditional Labour voters in Scotland were swayed by the SNP’s anti-Westminster and pro-poor rhetoric. In other parts of the country, there was a surge of popular interest in the smaller parties and the elections created a more diverse Parliament.

Labour was decisively rejected and the Liberal Democrats—who, as part of the ruling coalition, had kept the Cameron Government going—were almost wiped out. As soon as the results were declared, the Labour as well as Liberal Democrat leaders resigned, leaving the party faithful in search of new leaders and new policies.

Such cataclysmic events are not uncommon in some democracies but the British voters like their two-party system and shun political frenzy. They are not fickle. Large sections tend to remain committed to their political beliefs and loyalties. Only exceptional circumstances drive them to do things that are simply not done. But the May elections followed no war victory, nor an acute depression. The birth of a Royal baby was indeed a big event but no pundit said it would influence the voters’ behaviour.

All election forecasts had said that neither the Tories nor Labour will get a majority and that the next British Prime Minister will emerge from a dark room after deals among possible coalition partners. Britain was in for weeks of uncertainty. Such speculation proved wrong. Cameron did not need any coalition partner. His party won 331 seats in a House of 651, securing an absolute majority that had eluded his party in the last parliamentary elections.

The experts now say that the pollsters were misguided by those categorised as the “shy Tories”. It seems many Tories do not declare their voting intentions while the Labour supporters openly flaunt their political beliefs. The Tories are liked by the aspirational people wanting to do better in life and yet their brand image remains that of a “nasty party”.

The predictions of a hung Parliament were considered credible by the pundits because generally a ruling party fails to increase the number of its seats in the next elections. This makes Cameron’s achievement even more remarkable.

So was it the economy? The issue dominated the campaign debates with Cameron constantly harping on the performance of his government. Promises came flying day and night. The Conservatives promised to keep the taxes low as well as to cut the deficit. Labour promised higher minimum wages and a punishing levy on the wealthy. The SNP pleaded for an end to austerity and positioned itself Left to Labour!

The message of austerity that the Cameron Government had conveyed through its policies was used by Labour to paint the Tories as pro-rich. The new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, empathised with the needy Britons wanting the State to do more for their welfare. The pro-Tory press maligned him as “Red Ed”.

Labour suffered from a fatal weakness in the area of economic management. The voters generally did not trust Labour. They had a sneaking suspicion that the Labour leader, who had tilted his party towards the Left, would empty the coffers with reckless spending and bankrupt the nation. The vote for Tories seemed to be a vote for fiscal discipline and economic security. The Labour campaign failed to spark any hatred of the rich.

During the campaign, Cameron will take out a paper from his pocket saying that when he assumed office five years ago, this was the one-line note that the outgoing Labour Treasury Secretary had left behind in his office. It said there was no money! That was a reminder of the bad days under the last Labour Government.

Cameron had assumed power after the Labour years in the wake of an economic crisis. His management of the national economy was not bad and the worst years were over. Cameron urged the people to let him continue the task of increasing economic growth. The voters did not want to risk their economic well-being by trying out a new political dispensation. Cameron was a known entity.

The people trusted Cameron as a competent manager of the national economy. Of course, the general level of public trust in all politicians has fallen quite low. During the campaign, every uncommitted voter approached by this writer for his or her opinion was quick to call politicians liars.

The pro-Europe big business, the traditional supporter of the Tories, was a bit uneasy about Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s ties with the European Union. Cameron had to promise this in order to blunt the appeal of the anti-Europe party such as the UKIP and the strong Eurosceptic lobby in his own parliamentary party. Cameron made moderate anti-immigration remarks for the same reason.

The dark clouds of political instability have lifted. The markets—that had feared a long spell of uncertainty—greeted the election results with rational exuberance. Cameron has emerged as a stronger and more credible leader. This will keep the personal ambitions of his rivals in the party under control for some time. The Prime Minister does not have to do deals with any coalition partner holding him to ransom.

So Cameron is in 10 Downing Street and all is right with the Kingdom! Not quite. An earthquake is often followed by more tremors. Cameron cannot stand still as the drastically altered political landscape has widened the fault-lines. If a financial crisis were to hit the UK, Cameron will be in for serious trouble. And saving the unity of the United Kingdom appears to be a bigger challenge than saving the pound! Cameron has to face the rising tide of Scottish nationalism in Scotland and the unease that it has created in England. Cameron stoked the fires of English nationalism to counter the resurgence of Scottish nationalism and that will lead to more difficulties.

The Scottish Nationalists by their sweeping victory have politically delinked their region from the UK. They will continue to press for greater devolution of powers to Scotland while keeping the agenda of independence alive. The Scottish Nationalist Party leader, who was shown on the Tory poll posters as a thief trying to pick the pocket of the English and whom a pro-Tory newspaper called the most dangerous woman, ran a campaign that sent as many as 56 SNP members to the House of Commons.

Politics in the UK will never be the same again. The two major political parties will do intense soul-searching and are looking for new borrowed clothes to make themselves more presentable! Labour will be hit by a civil war in the wake of the party’s crushing defeat. And the Conservatives are not going to sink their ideological differences because of an unexpected victory. Cameron promised a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union and also talked of renegotiating the terms of its ties. This may turn into an explosive issue. John Major, an earlier Tory Prime Minister, had found it very hard to deal with the Eurosceptics in his party.

Europe and Scotland are ready to haunt the Prime Minister. The UK-US special relationship is not going to get any warmer. Cameron would not like to be seen as America’s Sergeant-Major since Blair’s Iraq war had a negative public reaction in the UK. Washington would not like the UK to cut off its ties with the European Union and thus will watch carefully Cameron’s moves regarding the promised referendum.

Cameron cannot go back on his promise of holding a referendum on Europe by 2017. He has to face the Tory Eurosceptics as well the UKIP whose anti-Europe campaign led to several Conservative members crossing over to it. The UKIP got 13 per cent of the polled votes. It will be represented by only one member in the House but under a proportional representation system, it would have got as many as 83 seats!

While the pressures created by the immig-rants were acknowledged by all parties, the UK Independence Party attacked the immi-grants for which it was called “racist”. However, there was no massive outbreak of xenophobic hysteria and even the UKIP leader directed his criticism mainly against the East Europeans coming to the UK as economic migrants.

So the UKIP caused no great concern among the Asian immigrants. The earlier generations of Indian immigrants feel committed to Labour because of historical reasons; the young British-Indians get drawn towards the Conservative Party which has become more diverse and inclusive. Those driven by aspirations, whatever is their colour, tend to find Labour less attractive.

As for Indo-British relations, these tend to become closer when Britain has a Conservative Government. This despite the fact that the Labour leaders of the past used to be friendlier towards India Thus Cameron will be only too keen to interact with the Indian Prime Minister.

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer. He was in Britain during the recent elections there.