May 20, 2010


Is this the end of the UK? (David Runciman, 5/27/10, London Review of Books)

[I]n the cold light of morning, once the dust had settled, and before Cameron and Clegg decided to stir it all up again, this looked like a pretty conventional sort of result. A tough economic climate, and a general weariness with and inside the governing party, was enough to produce a solid but hardly exceptional swing towards the main opposition party (the swing the Tories needed for an overall majority, of between 7 and 8 per cent, would have been much more historically unusual). The transformation of British politics that followed appears more like pure chance than anything else. Imputing it to the collective will of the British electorate would be a big mistake. One feature of the result was, however, highly unusual, though it has been rather lost sight of in all the subsequent excitement. For the first time there were two main opposition parties, not one. I am not referring to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. I mean the Tories and Labour.

In England (and to a certain extent in Wales) the Conservatives were the obvious vehicle for voters wanting to express their dissatisfaction with the government. But in Scotland, where the SNP is in government and Labour the main opposition, the Tories made almost no progress at all. There the party that showed the biggest improvement in its vote share from 2005 was Labour. It’s true that the swing from SNP to Labour was negligible (around 0.1 per cent), but the mere fact that Labour was putting on votes in Scotland while shedding them by the bucketload elsewhere in the United Kingdom shows that there were two different elections being fought at the same time. Indeed, it’s just possible that there were three. The other place in the UK where the Labour vote held up much better than expected was London, and London is another place where Labour can claim to be in opposition, to Boris Johnson’s do-nothing, know-nothing mayoral administration. I wouldn’t want to make too many claims for the contribution this role reversal might have made to the final outcome. But it is clear that the public mood made this a difficult election for any government to fight. And Scotland and London are two places where Labour could pretend not to be in government at all.

This is a consequence of devolution, and seen from one perspective, devolution has now made the United Kingdom more or less ungovernable. It is very hard to imagine how a Conservative administration in Westminster, even with the support of the Liberal Democrats, will be able to impose painful spending cuts on Scotland and expect to survive there as a political force. Alex Salmond, the SNP first minister, is already cranking up the moral outrage at the mere thought of it. The Liberal Democrats do give the new government the ballast of some Scottish MPs (11 in all), but in reality it was the Lib Dems who suffered most in Scotland at the election – it was the only major party that saw its share of the vote drop significantly. Even its traditional gripes about proportional representation don’t hold in Scotland – there they get exactly what they deserve (just under 19 per cent of the votes, just under 19 per cent of the seats). However you juggle the numbers, in Scottish terms this new Westminster government really is a coalition of losers. But in the end it was even harder to see how that other possible coalition of losers – a Labour/ Lib Dem alliance – could have forced through tax rises in England, where the Tories have a clear majority of seats and had a margin of victory over Labour in the popular vote of more than 11 per cent. Politics in the UK is now comprehensively out of sync. If the public finances were in better shape, this might not matter so much. But with horribly difficult choices to be made by whoever is in power, the pressures are bound to build.

The Conservative Party, in theory, remains fully committed to the Union. David Cameron repeatedly and pointedly talks about having come into politics to serve ‘our country’, and by that he doesn’t mean England – he means the UK. Yet this election was meant to be the occasion when the Tories re-established themselves as a political presence in Scotland: the expectation among Scottish Tories until very recently was that they would win at least five seats and perhaps more. But they remain stuck on one. This may now be as good as it gets. It is true that the election did not produce the one result that could have signalled the end of the United Kingdom, if Tory dominance in England had been matched by SNP dominance in Scotland, leading to a deal on independence which would have squeezed Labour out in both. But that simply shows that the only party which still has any real political (as opposed to emotional) incentive to keep the Union intact is Labour. But an incentive is one thing; achieving the goal is another. The grisly and short-lived attempt to put together a progressive coalition that might have hooked up the nationalists along with Labour, the Lib Dems and the token Green showed the acute difficulties Labour currently faces in forming a truly national government. What no coalition of any stripe can change is the underlying reality of the situation: at present Labour can only govern England from Scotland, and the Tories can only govern Scotland from England.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2010 1:54 PM
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