The Break-Up of Britain?
The unexpected nature and scale of the Conservative Party’s election victory on 7 May should not be underestimated. With the exception of the BBC’s exit poll (the results of which were announced immediately after the polls closed), all surveys conducted during the election campaign pointed confidently to a hung parliament with the Conservative Party emerging – at most – as the largest party but short of an outright parliamentary majority. The election result itself confounded these predictions dramatically. Compared to the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives increased their share of the vote from 36.1% to 36.9%, and their number of seats from 306 to 331, giving them a governing majority of 12. For the first time since Margaret Thatcher’s re-election in 1983, an incumbent governing party has increased both its share of the vote and its parliamentary representation. In his moment of triumph, and reflecting on a bruising and divisive election campaign, David Cameron declared that he would strive to “bring the country together. We will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom”.
This is little more than empty rhetoric. In fact, the political unity of Britain has never been more fragile, for the Conservatives’ victory was accompanied by the Scottish National Party (SNP)’s staggering triumph in which it gained 56 of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats, a gain of fifty on its 2010 total. Together with its control of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP now has near monopoly power in Scotland, with potentially critical implications for British politics as a whole. Scotland’s status as a traditional bastion of the Labour Party has been destroyed, possibly forever. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party – pro-Union par excellence – remains, fundamentally, the party of England. It has long ceased to be an electoral force in Scotland (with only 1 MP), and while it achieved its best performance in Wales for thirty years (gaining 11 of 40 Welsh constituencies) it remains the case that 96.4% of its MPs (319 of 331) represent English constituencies. Regardless of Cameron’s stated commitment to the political integrity of the United Kingdom, Scotland and England now appear to be following sharply diverging trajectories.
In contrast to the Conservatives’ and SNP’s electoral gains, the parties of the opposition suffered disaster, to varying degrees. The breakthrough of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) –heralded in recent years as the greatest threat to the British party system in a generation– failed to materialize. Nonetheless, while it gained only 1 MP, it could argue –with considerable justification– that it was only the iniquities of the electoral system which had prevented it from capturing more seats (while its vote total of 3.9 million gained it a single MP, the SNP’s 56 MPs were gained by a much lower, but more geographically concentrated, total of 1.45 million votes). In addition, the UKIP came second in many parliamentary constituencies (both Conservative and Labour) and its total vote share of 12.6% has established it as the third force in British, easily outstripping electoral support for the Liberal Democrats.
The latter have suffered an unmitigated disaster. The party’s share of the vote dropped to 7.9% (down from 23% in 2010) and it lost 48 of its 56 seats, being swamped by the nationalist surge in Scotland and losing to the Conservatives and Labour in roughly equal measure across England and Wales. Clearly, the Liberal Democrats have been punished by centrist voters for their participation in the Conservative-led coalition government of the last five years. Traditional Labour voters who supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 out of dissatisfaction with the previous governments of Blair and Brown appear to have returned to Labour, while more right-leaning voters, hesitant to vote Conservative in 2010, appear to have done precisely that in 2015.
Above all, the election results represent a crushing disappointment for Ed Miliband’s Labour Party and, as such, a severe setback for the cause of progressive politics in Britain. Labour’s vote share of 30.4% constituted only a very feeble advance on that of 2010 (29.0%), while more importantly, it lost, overall, 26 of its 258 seats. This is partially due to the catastrophe it suffered in Scotland, where 40 of its 41 seats fell to the SNP. This debacle is nothing more than the spectacular culmination of a twenty-year-old trend in Scottish politics. History, to be sure, will credit the Labour government of Blair with the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament. However, its calculation that this would halt the advance of nationalism and reinforce Labour’s traditional domination in Scotland has obviously proved to be wildly inaccurate.
Nonetheless, even if Labour had retained all of its Scottish seats, it would still have lost the general election, thereby underscoring the comprehensive nature of its defeat – it lost the battle in England and Wales, too. Miliband himself bears some of the responsibility. For sure, he was (with the partial exceptions of The Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Mirror), the unfair victim of a constant, merciless and vindictive press campaign. Yet media hostility alone cannot explain Labour’s loss. Miliband’s strategy since 2010 has been to distance the party from the unpopularity of the New Labour era of Blair and Brown, but he failed, in the end, to develop a coherent and convincing alternative, above all in the social and economic spheres so vital to underpinning a progressive political platform. While Cameron’s incumbent government could point to Britain’s low inflation and falling unemployment, Labour failed to exploit a reality of extremely sluggish levels of economic growth and, above all, the truly brutal levels of social and economic inequality that now exist in the country.
What does the election result say about the state of British politics? Half a century ago, Peter Pulzer famously declared that “class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail”. To a certain extent, this remains true: the electoral map of England and Wales shows that Labour’s electoral support is largely concentrated in the poorer districts of London, and the formerly heavily industrialized areas of South Wales and the cities of the English Midlands, the North-West and North-East. In sharp contrast, the Conservatives control the wealthy city suburbs, and the prosperous towns and rural counties of the English heartland. Yet events in Scotland now question the validity of Pulzer’s celebrated dictum. Nationalism now, as never before, ranks as the other principle axis of competition in British politics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city of Glasgow. Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable that this poor, working-class, fortress would have voted anything other than Labour. Yet on 7 May, the SNP captured all seven of the city’s constituencies. How did this happen? Glasgow’s left-leaning electorate has long been dissatisfied with Labour’s political moderation and perceived neglect of the city’s deep-rooted economic and social ills. With Labour’s candidates dismissed as nothing more than Red Tories, the electorate was responsive to the SNP’s adroit tactical move to the left. Yet the SNP also gained allegiance through a fundamentally nationalist appeal in which the needs of Glasgow could be better met via greater autonomy, if not outright independence, for Scotland as a whole.
Yet Jim Murphy, Labour’s defeated leader in Scotland, also noted astutely: “Let’s be clear; it wasn’t just in Scotland that the SNP cost Labour votes”. The fear of SNP influence over a Miliband-led Labour government was used ruthlessly, and effectively, by the Conservatives in the course of the campaign to reinforce their support amongst the English electorate. Murphy labelled this as the creation of “an artificial contest between English and Scottish nationalism”. It may well have been artificial, but its consequences are real enough: a Conservative government, whose electoral support is drawn overwhelmingly from England, is now pitted against an SNP with almost total power north of the border and which will almost certainly cede to pressure from its jubilant supporters to convoke another referendum on Scottish independence. Indeed, on 9 May, Alex Salmond, former SNP leader and now one of the party’s 56 MPs in Westminster, declared that Scottish independence was “a question of when, not if”. London and Edinburgh are therefore on a collision course, and it is this battle that is likely to dominate British politics for the time being. Discussion of the grave economic and social inequalities which affect all parts of the United Kingdom –and which is key to Labour’s electoral recovery– will, lamentably, be lost in the storm.
Andrew Richards en investigador senior en el Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias Sociales del Instituto Juan March. Doctor por la Universidad de Princeton, es autor del libro 'Miners on Strike' (Berg, 1996). En la actualidad está escribiendo una biografía de Salvador Allende.