Can Europe Make It?

A Disunited Kingdom

While the Conservative victory is remarkable, it is a mere incident in the fundamental transformation of British politics that is being played out in at least four important chapters. British politics is dead.

Cas Mudde
8 May 2015

The general election has led to wildly different results for coalition partners, Nick Clegg and David Cameron. Flickr/Number 10.As the results are coming in, and the exit polls are getting more and more confirmed, it becomes painfully clear that the opinion polls were woefully wrong. Rather than a neck and neck race between the Conservative Party and Labour, the Tories look set to comfortably beat Labour. More surprising, the much-haunted coalition government of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats may even manage to regain a (tiny) majority, despite the huge drubbing of the Lib Dems. While the Conservative victory is remarkable, it is a mere incident in the fundamental transformation of British politics that is being played out in at least four important chapters.

(1) A disunited kingdom

For the first time in modern British history each nation within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a different largest party. The Conservatives are the biggest party in England, the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. The irony is that this fragmentation – were the UK an Eastern European country we would call it Balkanization – comes after a resounding victory of UKIP in the European elections and a cliffhanger defeat of the Scottish referendum. Just as Brittania seemed to be ruling the waves as strong as ever, having rejected both Europe and Scotland, it is pulled apart in the British elections.

(2) A Labour disaster

The fact that Labour has lost is one thing, but the fact that the Labour lost in opposition, and in opposition to an uncomfortable coalition government of both major opponents to boot, is almost unbelievable. While the pundits scream for Ed Miliband’s head, which is understandable, Labour’s defeat has many more structural causes than an uninspiring party leader. Throughout western Europe social democratic parties have lost most of their traditional white working class base, mostly to right-wing populist parties or non-voting. At the same time they are losing their long-standing dominance among immigrant voters, who are increasingly finding a home in center-right parties (and generally have a lower turnout).

However, not only has the British Labour Party been one of the most enthusiastic embracers of neoliberal politics, it has been the main voice of devolution in the United Kingdom. Ironically, this devolution might have come to haunt them. While it might not have created majority support for independence in Scotland, it has given momentum to the SNP and has turned them into, effectively, the Scottish Labour Party, i.e. the mainstream left party in Scotland.

(3) A purple nuisance

The closer we got to the general elections, the less we heard about UKIP. But this came only at the end of a more than one-year long media frenzy about Nigel Farage and UKIP. Despite the fact that the European elections were the almost perfect second-order elections – with the coalition divided over Europe, European elections scheduled one year before general elections, and low turnout – and the two ‘UKIP MPs’ were nothing more than rebranded Tory MPs, most of the British media and pundits enthusiastically bought into Nigel Farage’s “Purple Revolution”.

In the end, UKIP turned out to have been a purple nuisance at best. It hasn’t undermined the overall Conservative result and it was merely a minor nuisance to the Labour Party, particularly compared to the SNP. Moreover, with Nigel Farage (likely to come third in South Thanet, as their suppressed internal poll had already predicted), UKIP will find itself without an undisputed leader. Given its tumultuous history, even under Farage’s leadership, this is most likely going to lead to defections, infighting, and political irrelevance.

(4) An unsure future

Whether the Conservatives are going to form a majority or minority government, it is going to be unstable. The main reason is internal: the extreme division over the European Union. If Cameron will call a referendum on a Brexit, a British exit from the European Union, it will make both Europe and the UK nervous. Even if a majority votes to stay in the EU, as polls seem to indicate, it could tear the Conservatives apart, give a second (or third) wind to UKIP, and further strengthen the desire for independence within Scotland. If the British vote for a Brexit, it will undoubtedly be based on an English majority, which will lead to a strong push for a new Scottish independence referendum (this time perhaps supported by the EU elite). And, finally, if Cameron reneges on his referendum promise, he will follow in the footsteps of John Major and be destroyed by a backbench revolt within the Conservative Party, while handing a lifeline to UKIP.

Whatever the future, two things are absolutely clear. First, the British two-party system is dead. Coalition government, whether in the form of majority or minority government, is the new norm. This will inevitably lead to a renewed debate over an electoral reform and a move toward a more proportional electoral system. Second, British politics is dead. While British politics was always predominantly English politics, English politics is now fundamentally different from not just Northern Irish but also Scottish politics. A confidently left-wing SNP will oppose both a Tory- and Labour-dominated Westminster. That is, if they are still in the same Disunited Kingdom in the future.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData