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Has David Cameron Won a Battle to Lose a War?

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David Cameron is basking today in the light of a historic triumph. Not since 1983 has an incumbent Prime Minister’s party been returned to Westminster with more seats than in the previous elections, and that was the conservative Grand Dame Margaret Thatcher. Not only have the Tories defied the pundits and the pollsters to avoid a hung Parliament, they may even be able to dispense with their Liberal Democrat colleagues to rule entirely on their own strength. If current exit polls hold true[1], the Conservatives will hold an outright majority with 327 of the 650 seats.

The winners…

winners

  • The Tories have not only crushed their traditional Labour rivals, they have staved off the challenge on the right from UKIP. In the process, they’ve also managed to bury their erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and may secure a majority in Westminster. Some clouds remain on the horizon: the growth in the total UKIP vote must be worrying, even if it did not translate into more seats, thanks to the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system;
  • The Scottish Nation Party shocked even itself by making a clean sweep of the seats available to them, taking 56 out of 59.
  • Nationalism, in general. The SNP ran on the simple platform of being the best party to oppose the “conservative plan” to undermine Scottish interests. But the Tories also campaigned on a belligerently nationalistic “English” message, warning of the dire consequences of a Labour government indebted to the Scots for a coalition, as if talking about a foreign country. And the growth in the UKIP vote only reinforced the message that English nationalism has increased drastically, and much to the detriment of the more “internationalist” Labour Party (or less patriotic, a Tory might say).

The losers…

losers

  • Labour suffered a historic defeat, not only in terms of overall seats, but particularly in their humiliating ejection from their traditional stronghold in Scotland. Mr. Miliband had a strong initial performance in the debates against his rivals, but he was simply unable to overcome popular perceptions of himself as “not the stuff” of a Prime Minister, as well as the marvelously effective smear job by the Conservatives of “Red Ed” coming to bankrupt the nation. Labour as a party has also failed to adjust to the rise of nationalism in Scotland and the English reaction to it;
  • The Liberal Democrats were also severely punished for their perceived sins in office. The compromises they made in coalition with the Tories ensured that they would alienate their own base without winning any love from conservatives. No one can say that Nick Clegg had not been warned: by pundits, before making the Faustian pact with Cameron; and then during last year’s European elections, when the LibDems suffered a defeat of similar magnitude to yesterday’s;
  • UKIP failed to live up to expectations and produce a drove of conservative defections to their party, but they polled well, gaining an estimated 12.6% of the vote (preliminary), significantly better than the 3.1% polled in 2010, and coming in second place in many boroughs. Unfortunately, for polemic party leader Nigel Farage, the results are far below his promised 12 seats: so while the party overall did well, Mr. Farage now faces a cloudy future.

All three leaders really should resign: so monumental a defeat must bring with it a political cost to the vanquished. Only Mr. Farage has a serious argument to make to stay in power, having tripled the number of votes received. He can always pull a Clegg and blame the quirky British voting system for not securing more seats.

  • Angela Merkal and the European Union. Ms. Merkel may be ideologically closer to Mr. Cameron than to Mr. Miliband, but she also wants to maintain a strong Britain in the European Union as a counterweight against France and the Club Med nations, as well as an equalizer to make the EU seem less like “Mitteleuropa” and more like a club of relative equals[2]. From that point of view, a Labour victory would have been more desirable.

elections

The results are nothing less than a truly tectonic shift in British politics, and I don’t mean that figuratively either. The rift runs right across the border with Scotland. For the first time in centuries, all of the major parties are essentially nationalist parties: no one truly represents the United Kingdom anymore. This reality has benefited the Tories and it was cleverly exploited by Mr. Cameron in a campaign characterized by the fear tactic of “Red Ed and the Scots”[3]. But in abandoning any pretense at representing Scotland, how can Mr. Cameron then turn around and claim that he wishes to govern as a unifying force in the United Kingdom, which he did in his morning victory speech? The concept is laughable.

map

In playing upon English fears and resentments, fanned white hot during the Scottish referendum last year, the Tories may have cemented their advantage over Labour; but they may have also lost Scotland from the Union. It will be difficult – likely impossible – to maintain this posture without further alienating the Scots. Here are the seeds sowed during the divisive Scottish independence referendum sprung up anew like an army of future troubles from the dragon’s teeth….

The consequences…

consequences

The United Kingdom seems determined to outdo the Greeks as the center of attention, though for very different reasons. The political situation on the islands will remain highly flammable over the next two to three years:

  • David Cameron promised voters that, if reelected, he would hold a referendum on the UK’s role in Europe in 2017. He will now be held to that promise by voters and his own conservative backbenchers. Should he renege on it, he might very well face a party revolt as well as a mass defection of the most conservative voters to UKIP. I do not think that he will go back on his pledge, which means that Brexit stands at least a 50/50 chance in 2017;
  • The new purely national nature of British politics together with the “second Stirling[4]” enjoyed by the SNP means that the question of Scottish independence is far from decided. If anything, it is more explosive than ever. The Scots voted by a 10% margin to stay in the Union, but on some very favorable terms pledged to them by all the major English parties[5]: these pledges have not yet been delivered by Parliament. The SNP will now press very hard to secure the new powers for Scotland; but David Cameron will find this promise a much harder one to fulfill. It is very likely that a majority Tory government will not come through with the full range of the promised devolution – which is precisely the outcome the SNP wants. “The Tories lied” will do very nicely as a slogan and a platform for their next independence bid;
  • That new independence bid could be launched as soon as 2017. The Scots are generally more supportive of staying in the EU than the English are. It is the Act of Union they find objectionable, not the European Union. Should Cameron hold his referendum and should England vote to leave while Scotland votes to stay[6], the SNP would have the perfect scenario for a new referendum: and a very good chance to win it too.

Mr. Cameron has won a tremendous victory, without any doubt; but by his methods, he may have gained a battle only to lose the war.


Sources and Notes

[1] Nate Silver, “Live Blog of the 2015 UK General Election,” FiveThirtyEight, 08 May 2015

[2] Fernando Betancor, “Europe: Too Much Germany and Not Enough Britain?,” Common Sense, 13 May 2014

[3] Daily Mail Comment, “How the Tories Can Stop Red Ed and the SNP,” The Daily Mail, 17 April 2015

[4] I refer to the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 when a Scottish army led by Sir William Wallace and Andrew de Moray destroyed an invading English force.

[5] Given the results in Scotland, I feel justified in calling the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems “English” parties.

[6] Assuming that the overall vote is also to leave the EU.

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One Response to “Has David Cameron Won a Battle to Lose a War?”

  1. how Grexit can influence Brexit?

    Posted by eltet | May 8, 2015, 16:31

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