Unsure times ahead for Britain

TRANSITION: “Is Britain moving from one, stable, mode of politics to another, less familiar, and more unpredictable kind?” Picture shows cardboard cutouts of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and leader of the opposition Labour Party Ed Miliband, in London.   | Photo Credit: STEFAN WERMUTH

After two decades of continuous Congress rule, Indian politics fragmented from the 1960s onwards. In 1977, the first coalition government appeared. Through the 1990s, India worked its way through seven governments with six different Prime Ministers. Since 1998, dozens of smaller parties have propped up the Centre and parties with wholly divergent constituencies and ideologies have united for power. In short, Indian elites have grasped the psychological and political demands of deal-making in fractured parliaments.

British politicians may once have understood that art, but have long forgotten it. The Conservative Party ruled for over half of the 20th century, and hung parliaments have been rare since the War. The first occurred in 1974, and limped on for just eight months. In 2010, a coalition government came into being, the first since the War and the first in Britain to have been formed for want of a majority rather than for a national emergency.

The coalition, between the centre-left Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) and centre-right Conservatives (Tories), was expected to be a brief aberration from the norm, giving way to a strong, single-party government due course. But it is now looking unlikely. On May 7, Britain will undergo its tightest election for a generation, one that will produce another hung parliament, but under drastically changed conditions that could shape the very integrity of the United Kingdom and its place in the world. Is Britain transitioning from one stable mode of politics to another, less familiar, and more unpredictable kind?

Two parties and a paradox

Under ordinary circumstances, a Labour or Tory would-be government short of seats could cut a deal with the Lib Dems, who pledge to “add heart to a Conservative government and brain to a Labour one”. But the rise of two new parties has shattered that assumption. Eight years ago, Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), a populist, anti-European party, as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Today, it boasts two seats in parliament, and polls at 14 per cent, just under twice the Lib Dems. It won’t win many seats, but it will eat into the Tories’ vote share.

At the other end of the spectrum is the left-wing Scottish National Party (SNP), which leveraged its victory in the Scottish elections of 2011 to secure a referendum for independence in 2014. Seven months since, the party’s members have quadrupled to 100,000, just short of the Tories’ 150,000, and now polls at a remarkable 54 per cent in Scotland. If that holds, Labour will be wiped out in Scotland — indeed, the SNP could win every single seat in Scotland.

As UKIP and the SNP have swelled, the Lib Dems have deflated, and look set to lose over half their seats. This would mean that the SNP, a party devoted to dismantling the U.K. and its nuclear weapons, could become the third largest party in parliament.

No matter how hard they try, the two major parties are stuck. On the one hand, the current coalition achieved the fastest growth rate of any major economy last year, and created nearly half a million jobs between 2013 and 2014. On the other hand, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, is now more popular than Tory’s David Cameron. But, hobbled by their smaller rivals, neither party now seems able to secure a majority.

This throws up a paradox that the British public are ill equipped to understand. Although the Tories seem likelier to win more seats, Mr. Miliband is likelier to become Prime Minster. While a Tory minority government backed by the Lib Dems and right-wing Irish unionist parties is an outside possibility, the parliamentary mathematics suggests that only one coalition or alliance is viable: Labour, Lib Dem, and — controversially — SNP. The Tories have played up this possibility to win disgruntled right-wing voters back from UKIP, warning of a radical and spendthrift coalition coming to power. Moreover, since Scotland has devolved powers on matters such as education and healthcare, some argue that it would be illegitimate for Scottish MPs to dictate key policies for England that would have no bearing on their own constituencies.

Mr. Miliband has ruled out deals with the SNP. Labour argues that the nationalists could not realistically bring down a Labour government, thereby allowing Tories into power, without provoking a backlash from their own base. But this looks like a bluff, designed to reduce the SNP’s post-election bargaining power.

Silence over foreign policy

What does this mean for foreign policy? In the first instance, it represents the rupture of the U.K., whoever wins. A Tory-led government would push for votes on English matters to be restricted to English MPs, which would anger Labour, which hopes to win back its seats in Scotland. The sight of a Labour-led government making major concessions to secessionists would equally lead many to believe they are better off without Scotland — exactly what the SNP, which insists it will hold another referendum, wants.

Second, the SNP has said that the renewal of Trident, the colloquial name for Britain’s Scotland-based nuclear deterrent, is a “red line”. Although the Labour leadership is staunchly in favour of nuclear weapons, the party’s prospective MPs are more equivocal, and a compromise could even involve moving the base away from Scotland or cutting costs by downgrading the number of submarines.

Third, a Tory-led government is committed to holding a referendum on British membership in the European Union. Mr. Cameron intends to renegotiate the terms of membership, returning as-yet unspecified powers from Brussels to London, and then campaign to stay in. The risk is that EU allies, frustrated with Mr. Cameron’s pandering to the right-wing, might reject the proposal, limit concessions, and a frustrated public might subsequently vote to leave the EU.

This would have potentially serious economic costs to Britain, besides limiting its influence over a common European foreign policy. This includes crucial matters such as economic sanctions against Russia and Iran, and trade negotiations with India.

Fourth, this election has been characterised by a conspiracy of silence around foreign policy and defence. Even as Europe undergoes its worst security crisis since Berlin, and West Asia its greatest upheaval since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, neither party has addressed how they will handle these challenges.

Although Mr. Cameron exhorted his allies to uphold commitments to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence during last year’s NATO summit in Wales, British defence spending is heading below that figure. The British Army could shrink below its already greatly reduced number of 82,000 troops. Make no mistake: Britain remains an extremely capable expeditionary power, but the political elite’s understanding of where and how to use that force, and to what end, is growing blurred.

For countries familiar with hung parliaments, coalitions, and horse-trading, such things appear simple and quotidian. In the U.K., compromise can look like chaos. The rapid growth of new parties, new kingmakers, is disorienting. But voters appear to have understood, and rejected, the traditional parties’ appeal to familiarity and stability. The 56th British parliament looks set to reflect Britain’s uncertain political times.

(Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, London, and a PhD candidate at Harvard University.)

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2021 3:52:24 AM |

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