David Coates

The U.K. Election: U.S. Lessons

Watching the UK election from Glasgow and not due back in the U.S. until next week, several thoughts seem worth sending home ahead of us.

  • Please remember that this result was entirely unexpected by everyone – including the Conservative political leadership who ended up with a small but working majority. Every major political party here expected that the weekend after the election would be dominated, not by the appointment of Cabinet ministers as is now happening, but by negotiations between political parties, no one of which had a working majority. Rooms were booked in London to hold those negotiations. Negotiating teams were tentatively picked – teams that included politicians who unexpectedly went down to political defeat on Thursday night. We expected a long night of policy compromise: but no, instead the Tories won, and they were as surprised as the rest of us.
  • Why the surprise? Primarily because for months the leading public opinion monitors had forecast a tied election, with Conservative and Labour each only a few support points apart, and with the Liberal Democrats likely again to hold the balance. People south of the Scottish border knew that the SNP might take a few Labour seats in Scotland, but the assumption was that any Scottish losses would be offset by Labour victories in a string of seats that their Conservative opponents won in 2010 only by a tiny margin. The Labour Party might be in crisis now: but so too is the public opinion industry. When the BBC election coverage opened at 9.55 pm on election night, they shook the entire political class by reporting that their exit poll (data gathered from people after they had voted) indicated that the Conservatives would win the night. Telephone opinion surveys and carefully selected focus groups are clearly no substitute for asking the people who actually vote. The people spoke on Thursday night here, and surprised even themselves!
  • So does the result matter? It matters for the UK, but does it matter for the US? The answer has to be ‘yes’. It absolutely does: but perhaps not in the short term exactly as the first commentators are suggesting.1 The support for the SNP in Scotland does not mean that Scottish independence is now inevitable. Scotland is still overwhelmingly a center-left nation, but not necessarily a separatist nationalist one. Two linked but different things happened in Scotland last Thursday. Some Labour Party supporters switched to the SNP because the Nationalists outflanked the Scottish Labour Party on its left. It was the SNP’s opposition to the Tory’s austerity program that won such votes for them. But the SNP swept Scotland too because new SNP voters came out in droves. South of the border, in England and Wales, the proportion of people voting settled in and around 66%. The proportion in Scotland was so much higher. The new voters had been mobilized by the earlier Scottish referendum campaign, and remained involved by the slowness of implementation, and indeed backsliding on, promises made by London politicians to tip the result of the referendum in their way in September.

Which means what? It means that Scottish independence remains, for the moment, on the backburner of politics in the UK, both north and south of the border. The United Kingdom is, for the moment, secure. But how long it remains secure depends on how London’s political class handles the rise not just of Scottish nationalism but of its English equivalent. Scottish nationalism is opposed to Conservative austerity. English nationalism represented now by a new political force – the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – is not so opposed. Its concern is with membership of the European Union, and with the freedom of migration across European national boundaries inexorably associated with the European project. UKIP wants the UK to leave the European Union. So do many backbench Tory MPs. In their overwhelming opposition to immigration, they are the UK’s equivalent of the Tea Party. There is no appetite for EU withdrawal in Scotland. They are not Tea-Party minded.

The English drink a lot of tea. Drinking tea is one of the pleasures of being here. But with deep austerity cuts to come in an emergency budget in June, and with a referendum on EU membership due by 2017, whether the Union is still in place by the time the UK as a whole votes again in 2020 remains an open question. How it is eventually resolved may partly turn on how a deeply shaken Labour Party responds to the contradictory electoral imperatives it now faces: needing to move left to win back votes in Scotland but back to the center to offset the drift of English Labour voters to UKIP.

American observers of UK politics would therefore do well to see the US parallels here. The dilemma facing the UK Labour Party is basically the one faced by Democratic presidential candidates as they seek victory in 2016. The dilemma facing the UK Conservative Party is how to hold the UK together while cashing in on anti-European popular sentiment. If either major UK political party fails to find a way through its particular political conundrum, the United States stands poised to lose its most reliable European ally – the post-imperial United Kingdom.

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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