Global Agenda: Rule Britannia

In three weeks’ time, the United Kingdom will hold the most extraordinary general election in the country’s long history.

April 16, 2015 22:04
4 minute read.

Man counts money near currency exchange in Kiev [file]. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In three weeks’ time, the United Kingdom will hold the most extraordinary general election in the country’s long history. That may be rather too dramatic and sweeping an assessment for delicate British political palates, so let’s dilute it somewhat and go with the Financial Times summary of what lies dead ahead: “The UK faces the closest and most unpredictable general election in memory on May 7. Labor’s struggle to hold off the SNP in Scotland, UKIP’s rise and a mooted collapse in Lib Dem support all make the outcome very difficult to predict.”

That’s as good a précis as you will see, but for the benefit of readers who do not follow British politics closely, let me flesh it out somewhat.

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First, some background. The current government is itself a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. That is because in the May 2010 election the former won 306 out of the 650 seats, comfortably ahead of Labor’s 257 but short of an outright majority. It therefore turned to the “LibDems,” who won 57 seats – less than 10 percent of the total, despite having some 23% of the votes.

That is the result of a “first-past-the-post” constituency system in which the candidate with the most votes in each constituency goes to Westminster, and all the others go home.

The LibDems had no choice but to go with the Tories because the public had plainly voted Labor out of office after 13 years. To ensure the stability of the coalition and prevent the Tories calling an early election when it suited them – standard political behavior in Britain – the Lib- Dems demanded and got a law stipulating full five-year terms for Parliaments. This “achievement” has cost them dearly, forcing them to support five years of “austerity” despite the anger and dismay of their voters.

Hence the “mooted collapse in LibDem support” noted by the FT. Many millions of LibDem voters will desert, mostly to Labor and some to Conservative, so that as much as half or two-thirds of LibDem seats are expected to be lost.

Meanwhile, “north of the border,” as the English still term Scotland (after 308 years of union), the Scottish people cast a clear NO vote in a referendum foolishly agreed to by Prime Minister David Cameron over the question of Scottish independence and held last September. Yet in the wake of this stinging defeat, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has become stronger, rather than weaker – and it is set to win the overwhelming majority of the Scottish constituencies. Most of these seats have been “safe” Labor strongholds for generations, so that Labor is facing a loss of several dozen seats, which, at the least, will offset much of its projected gain in England at the expense of the LibDems and Tories.


Now comes the strangest part of all. A party called the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has sprung up from nowhere – as in zero seats in the previous election and very few votes – and is attacking the Tories from the right. Its avowed goal is to crack down on immigration and, above all, to leave the EU. It is set to win many millions of white, male, English votes – but under the same curse as the LibDems labored under until their 2010 breakthrough, UKIP will probably be unable to convert these votes into more than a handful of seats.

To sum up: UKIP, to the right of the Tories, will eat into safe Tory majorities and may win a few seats but, by splitting the Tory vote, will allow Labor to win many more. The LibDems will lose some of their seats to Tories, but more will fall to Labor. Labor will thus win seats in England and Wales, but it will be massacred by the SNP in Scotland. As for the seats in Northern Ireland (Sinn Fein Catholics versus Democratic Unionist Protestants) and the Welsh Nationalists, let’s not even go there – although these relatively small parties could prove critical in the postelection arithmetic.

It will be clear from the foregoing that the rare (for Britain) but relatively simple “two-big-parties-and-one smallish-one” parliamentary structure of 2010 – previously seen in 1974 and in the 1920s – will be replaced by a mess of big, smaller, smaller and tiny parties. All this is very familiar to Israelis but entirely alien to the British, who are facing not merely political gridlock but a much more fundamental crumbling of their vaunted two-party system and the political stability that it provided.

From a narrow Israeli viewpoint, the worst outcome – currently the most likely, but things could change again – is for Labor to win more seats than the Tories and to govern in coalition with the SNP. Although the SNP’s wilder demands, such as the abolition of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, will be rejected, its virulently poisonous anti-Israel anti-Semitism will find ready support in sections of the Labor Party and could become policy before long.

As for the financial markets, these would much prefer a Tory victory, especially given Labor’s renewed flirtation with antibusiness and redistributive policies. But Cameron has committed his next government to a referendum on continued EU membership in 2017 – and he might well lose it, threatening chaos in the UK economy, which his party claims to have saved.

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