11 June 2015

The coming upheaval in Britain

Last year's referendum result rejecting Scottish independence, and last month's national election which re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron and gave his Conservative party an absolute majority in Parliament, might easily be taken as having disposed of controversies and stabilized the country.  In fact, it's more likely that they were just the prelude to a new period of turmoil unprecedented in recent British history.

There are three issues likely to move onto the front burner in the next couple of years, and they're all interrelated:

1) The voting system

Britain is divided into many small constituencies each of which elects one member of Parliament (MP), similar to our Congressional districts.  In the US, the democratic character of the system has been undermined by Republican state governments gerrymandering district boundaries so that, even though more overall votes are cast for Democrats, Republicans win a majority of House seats.  Britain has a different problem.  With several parties now winning significant numbers of votes -- the two traditional major parties (Conservative and Labour), the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party (UKIP, opposing Britain's membership in the European Union), and the Scottish nationalists (SNP) -- votes within a single constituency can be divided in so many ways that the top vote-getter still falls far short of an absolute majority, and many voters feel disenfranchised.  A party can win many votes in absolute terms but still get few MPs if it failed to come first in many constituencies.

This is what happened last month.  The Conservative party actually won only 37% of the total popular vote, but now holds an absolute majority in Parliament because its candidates came first among a hodgepodge of candidates in more than half the constituencies.  The UKIP won 12% nationally, but ended up with only one MP out of the total of 650, because there was only one constituency where it came first.  The Conservatives now claim a mandate to push forward with their destructive austerity policies even though 63% of voters rejected them.  It's hard to see how this can fail to provoke a crisis of legitimacy.  Whether or not it does, with the vagaries of this electoral system now having doomed Britain to five more weary years of those policies before it has its next chance to get rid of them, I'd expect to see increasing emigration of the young and the most capable, as has already been happening in southern Europe where similar policies have been imposed by the EU.

2) Scotland

The SNP swept Scotland, winning 56 of the 59 constituencies there (though, again, its share of the actual popular vote was not as overwhelming as this suggests).  So soon after Scottish voters' resounding rejection of independence last year, the SNP was careful to stress that a vote for it was not a vote for another independence referendum.  Instead, it emphasized its opposition to austerity, which is even more unpopular in Scotland than in the UK as a whole.  On that platform, the party won a huge, stunning victory.  And that victory is now meaningless.  The Scots, like almost everyone, assumed that Labour and the Conservatives would each come somewhat short of 50% of Parliament seats and that the SNP could hold the balance of power.  With the Conservatives holding an absolute majority, they can govern alone, no matter what any other party wants.

With the prospect of another five years of Conservative rule (something most Scots who voted against independence last year probably didn't think was likely), SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has now been hinting that another independence referendum might be merited after all, especially if there is a "material change in circumstances".  In addition, at the time of the referendum the British government made various promises to the Scots to entice them to stay in, and some now claim those promises were not kept.  The SNP will probably wait for the elections to Scotland's own local Parliament a year from now -- if its landslide is repeated there, its mandate will be strengthened.

In an amusing side story, a petition has been circulating in the Labour-leaning northern part of England (in US terms, a heavily blue-collar, "rust belt" region) in support of also leaving the UK and joining Scotland if it separates.  This isn't a serious proposal, but it suggests the depth of discontent with the Conservatives' win.

3) The European Union

Cameron has a plan for addressing widespread discontent with Britain's membership in the bureaucratic and domineering EU.  He promised that, if re-elected, he would conduct tough negotiations with the EU leadership to get a better deal for Britain, then hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership.  If the British people thought the new deal he got for them wasn't good enough, they could vote to leave.

In fact, like pretty much all establishment politicians in Europe (left or right), Cameron is a committed EU supporter and is unlikely to do anything that would create a serious chance of Britain leaving.  The real purpose of the referendum part of the plan is to serve as a threat to hold over the EU leadership -- agree to my terms or my people will vote to leave.  His assumption is that he'll get a good enough deal that the voters will choose to stay in (recent polling shows the "stay in" side comfortably ahead, though it's unguessable what the respondents are assuming Cameron will be able to get in the negotiations).  But the EU has been sounding unreceptive to Cameron's proposals, and if he can't get much out of them, he'll face a dilemma.  Although he'll probably try to weasel out of holding the referendum if it looks like the people will vote to leave, much of his own party is "Euroskeptic" and pressure to go ahead with the vote may prove irresistible.  While the anti-EU UKIP has been plagued with far-right pandering and extremist candidates that threaten to brand it a fringe party, there is a serious case for leaving the EU, and sober people will make that case during a campaign.  The "leave" side could well win.

And if the UK votes to leave the EU, then the UK will cease to exist.  Sturgeon has made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be just the kind of "material change in circumstances" that would justify another referendum on Scottish independence.  And since the EU is much more popular in Scotland than in England, the result would practically be a foregone conclusion.  In fact, in this scenario I wouldn't be too surprised to see a wave of pro-independence activity in Wales as well, even though there's been little sign of this in the recent past.

These things matter.  The UK is our closest ally.  It's the world's seventh-largest economy.  It has nuclear weapons and a major navy.  Handling all the problems raised by splitting up the country would create years of distraction and introversion.  The success of Scottish separatism would encourage other such movements all over Europe, creating a wave of pointless distractions from the real and pressing problems of austerity, economic stagnation, Russian expansionism, etc.  I worry a little that it might even encourage secessionist lunacy in places like Texas, especially if (as seems likely) our own 2016 election produces a Democratic tsunami.

All this could have been avoided if the British electoral system had been set up in a fairer way, so that one party did not win the ability to govern alone with just 37% of the actual vote.  However, it's too late to do anything about that now.  Even if the system is reformed, the results of last month's election will stand.  The next national election is scheduled for 2020.  I'd give it at best a 50-50 chance that the land of my ancestors will still exist as a unified state by then.


Blogger Rosa Rubicondior said...

A good summary of the current state of play in UK politics.

The issue of how to make our representative parliament is a difficult one and a proposal to adopt a form of proportional representation similar to that use to elect MEPs and member of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments was rejected by the electorate by something like a two-thirds majority a few years ago. This was probably due to the experience of seeing two losing parties get together to form a coalition, then promptly tear up the manifestos on which they had stood in the election and adopt policies no one had voted for - a so-called coalition agreement. Unbelievably, they justified this on the basis that the electorate had voted against their manifestos, so they had no mandate for them, but they DID have a mandate to invent new policies and tell us what we were getting.

So, we saw that coalitions, which would be the norm under PR, actually put the politicians in charge and THEY decide what policies we're getting AFTER the vote. The government you get isn't one you vote for but one cobbled together by professional career politicians in back-room deals after the election.

Cameron's motive for his posturing over the EU is not so much popular discontent with the EU but to appease his own loony right who were in danger of defecting to UKIP. Cameron is caught on the horns of a dilemma over the EU. Big business, which is overwhelmingly pro EU, is his major source of party funding. It was partly Labour's unashamedly pro-EU stance during the Blair years, compared to a Tory Party under Major disintegrating and at war with itself over the issue, that caused business to switch support to Labour.

What lies behind this rift in the Tory Party is the English Class system and good old English upper-class snobbery. Many Tories still see themselves as the natural party of government, there to run THEIR country in THEIR interests. As one Thatcherite once remarked, "Now we've stopped pretending there isn't a class-war, we can get on and win it". To Tories, elections are simply part of the class-war and the winner takes all.

The old Common Market was fine so long as it was a businessman's club and left the ruling class to get on with running their countries as they saw fit. But that changed with the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the EU, and, Heaven forfend, The Social Chapter!

Now, the EU started to meddle in things like workers' rights, environmental issues, food standards, advertising standards, Human Rights, free movement of labour, etc, etc. How dare these foreigners tell US how to treat OUR workers and dictate to US what rights we should give our people?

Cameron is well aware of this but his MPs on the far right are well aware of their power in a parliament where the majority is so small. It only needs a handful of rebels and Cameron's majority goes. This gives the extremists a lot of power. In fact, it is THEY who hold the balance of power in this parliament.

So, Cameron has to try to appease his loony right while pandering to his pro-EU backers. Normally with Tory politics, the money decides. Safeguarding party funds takes precedence over even national interest and policies are auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As well as the Scottish issue, the next five years is going to a story of how the Tory Party balances these forces and how effectively the xenophobic, nationalist, class-warrior loonies use their power.

13 June, 2015 03:21  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Excellent information. Sturgeon was interviewed this week by Judy Woodruff on PBS News Hour. She will be a force for Cameron to contend with.

13 June, 2015 07:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Rosa: Thanks for your insights -- I appreciate them. It sounds as if, despite the relative lack of religious loons, the right wing in Britain has more in common with ours here than I thought.

Good point, especially, about how the thin Conservative majority means that the party's extremist fringe will have a lot of power. (This is in contrast with the Republican majority in our House of Representatives, which basically consists of several extremist fringes working at cross purposes with each other, which is why they can't get anything done.)

Scotland is now in somewhat the same position as Greece -- condemned to austerity policies it doesn't want by the larger entity of which it is part. Much as I would hate to see the UK break up, I can see that now, from a Scottish viewpoint, it may seem like the least bad option.

Shaw: I'm glad if the media here are starting to cover some of this in detail -- perhaps Americans will be a little less taken by surprise by developments overseas.

13 June, 2015 08:08  
Blogger Rosa Rubicondior said...

The point which will not be lost on the Scots, who voted massively for SNP, is that their MPs will now be almost completely ignored. Even now Cameron is planning to legislate to restrict their powers so they can't vote on English & Welsh only issues - the first time in history that we will have second class Westminster MPs.

Meanwhile, Cameron will be dancing to the tune of about a dozen right-wing English Tories if they can stay united long enough to be effective. Scotland has long been a virtual Tory-free zone, or Disney Land (it disnae vote Tory; it disnae matter). It looks like the Tories have now given up on Scotland and are willing to settle for being top dogs in Little England.

13 June, 2015 10:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I understand how the Scots feel, but I hope they remember that this mess is the product of a skewed electoral system -- the majority of the English didn't vote for the Conservatives. It would be terrible if the Scots and English started thinking of each other as enemies (I know terrible things happened in the past, but modern times have been different).

13 June, 2015 16:44  
Blogger Woody said...

Hi Infidel,
In 2001 I visited family and friends in Scotland, the highlands, lowlands, East and West coasts. When the issue of Scottish independence came up, the majority were strongly for it. As is my habit I talked about advantages and disadvantages of their complete independence. The details didn't look good for it and I said so.
But it seemed that almost all of them already knew about the things I was saying. I was not the only one who knew of the challenges and difficulties inherent in national separation.
With eyes ablaze many seemed to welcome these challenges, to far prefer them to continuation. The drive in their eyes as they described how they wanted to take the test and powerfully, intelligently wade through it was impressive.
See what I mean about passion? As we discussed on another blog at another time, passion is important, but in my view should be kept completely away from the process of reaching conclusions.
Hitler seemed passionate about anti-Semitism, in word and deed.
Like I told my family and friends in Scotland, their passion is admirable, I just wanted to be sure that they knew about the almost certain results that will be found.

All the best,

15 June, 2015 23:04  

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