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Cameron’s victory in a (dis-) United Kingdom

The Conservatives' surprise but qualified win exposes the deep problems facing the country over the coming years. 

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
18 May 2015

Before the United Kingdom elections of 7 May, both British and international media were expecting a highly uncertain outcome. The victory of David Cameron’s Conservative Party, albeit narrow, therefore came as a surprise to many. This influenced the nature of the response, with much talk of a Conservative triumph, Cameron’s own moment of glory, and more celebratory statements of this kind. But have the Tories really won? And if yes, to what degree? Moreover, what do these elections suggest about the state of democracy in the UK and the west in general?

The most basic fact is that the Conservatives obtained 331 seats out of 650, ninety-nine more than Labour, the second largest party and their chief rivals in forming a government. The Tories' percentage of votes was 36.9 vis-à-vis Labour’s 30.4. This is a remarkable feat after five years when the Conservatives had been in government (in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats). But some simple observations on quantitative aspects add more insight into this apparently sweeping victory. Three aspects deserve specific attention.

First, the Liberal Democrats have almost disappeared as a parliamentary force -  and in a sense been "swallowed" by their bigger coalition partner. They kept only eight of their fifty-six seats, with twenty-six of the forty-eight going to Conservative candidates. It's true that polls had forecast a Lib-Dem defeat, but Nick Clegg’s party was still expected to obtain about twenty-thirty seats; reality turned out to be much harder, as overnight the party moved from having six cabinet members to just eight MPs. It is likely that some former Lib-Dem voters perceived their policies to be close to the Conservative platform, and therefore swung to Cameron’s party, while others were alienated for the same reason. Certainly, Clegg’s failure to keep promises on university tuition fees and pro-European policies did not go unnoticed, and his party was squeezed from both directions.

Second, Labour was reduced to just one seat in Scotland by the Scottish National Party (SNP’s) long predicted landslide. This deprived Ed Miliband’s party of forty seats, including those of shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and Scotland’s Labour leader, Jim Murphy. This means that Cameron’s decisive win was clearly facilitated by Scotland’s autonomist (or independentist?) drive, which because of the latter’s political geography hit Labour harder than the Tories.

Third, the sum of Tories and Lib-Dem seats in 2015 is 339, down from 363 five years ago. These figures say that the election was not great for the coalition as a whole; but also that Britain remains very divided, with opposition votes going to the SNP, Labour, the United Kingdom Independence Party - which got 12.6% of the total - and several smaller parties, including the Greens. Nigel Farage’s UKIP might have obtained only one seat under the unrepresentative "first-past-the-post" system, but its almost four million votes cannot be ignored. 

This short exercise in political arithmetic ends with the worrying consideration that the Conservative can count on a modest majority of five seats. Yet the challenges ahead are daunting - from Scotland to the European Union "in-out" referendum - and the United Kingdom remains politically rather dis-united.

Scotland’s quest for autonomy bears witness to a decline of nation-states, a process which has been going on in Europe for a long time. In the short term, the SNP’s success has benefited Conservatives, but the new government will have to face the challenge of keeping a solidly united kingdom. Otherwise, more fragmentation might follow, starting with Wales and continuing with calls for more autonomy in northern England.

As far as the EU is concerned, it is clear that parts of Britain see Brussels as a useless (or worse, obnoxious) bureaucratic and regulatory burden; they point to Europeans’ constant infighting, southern Europe’s fiscal troubles, and the eurozone’s uncertain future. The UK’s temptation to seek geopolitical equidistance between Europe, the United States, east Asia (with its prosperous former colonies such as Hong Kong and Singapore), the Middle East and other rising Commonwealth countries (such as India), might become stronger.

Yet Britain has to pay attention. How powerful would it be vis-à-vis China, or even India and Saudi Arabia - all states that are strongly resisting even US pressure? Would the UK be accepted as a "peer" in Beijing or New Delhi? Or wouldn’t the latter carry on organising new financial centres (such as Shanghai-Hong Kong, and Mumbai), global development banks, new rating agencies, new commercial avenues, and so on? In other words, leaving the EU might have benefits, but the costs, especially in the long-term, are difficult to assess.

An uncertain outlook

What does the 7 May election suggest with regard to democracy’s evolution? One aspect is clearly positive: the overall turnout was good (by British standards), with a remarkable 66.1%, the highest since Tony Blair’s first win in 1997. In Scotland it was higher still, at 71%. Yet in many other respects, democracy does not look in good shape. Many citizens have lost trust in traditional parties, a trend occurring throughout the EU. The growth of local, regional, and populist forces is another expression of disillusion with existing political frameworks. Here the SNP’s "conquest" of Scotland and the large UKIP vote represent a strong signal, particularly in a country that has epitomised bipolar democratic stability, and witnessed acceptable economic growth since 2012 (unlike most of the eurozone).

Britain is thus not immune to the west’s political malaise, and Cameron’s clear (but limited) majority cannot hide its problems. A big one is wealth inequality). The United Kingdom is by some measure the only G7 country that experienced rising inequality in the period 2000-14. British productivity is also the second lowest among the G7 states and wage stagnation has alarmed commentators across the spectrum. Is the UK going to follow the US in the emergence of a permanent "dual" labour market (one for high-skilled jobs, another for all the rest?)? Will "zero-hour contracts" and "mini jobs" keep proliferating? How will British society react to potentially severe public-sector cuts?

David Cameron has won, but a difficult task awaits him. Western countries in general are right to be concerned that one of the wealthier and more stable EU states has narrowly avoided an embarrassing "hung parliament", and faces a difficult few years. What will happen at the heart of the eurozone, where the fate of whole states seems to hang on Mario Draghi’s decisions on interest rates? 

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