aNewDomain — Last November, the Scottish National Party (SNP) persuaded 45 percent of Scotland to vote for the country’s independence from the United Kingdom. Barely six months later, the SNP stands on the cusp of controlling the next UK Parliament in Westminster.
On May 7, Britain will vote for a new Parliament. The decision about which political party gets to form a new government could take several days to work out if the latest polls are correct. Whoever ends up as the minority party will want a lot of concessions from the coalition’s majority party as the price for allowing a new government to be formed. The result is sure to be a long and arduous negotiation.
Britain is just the latest European country to undergo massive political shifts. Europe’s present configuration, a result of World War II and Cold War machinations, is about to make a course correction.
If the Labour Party comes in first, then it will likely form a coalition with the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon. Of course, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, denies that his party will form a coalition with the SNP, arguing instead that voters should give Labour an absolute majority.
On the other hand, if the ruling Conservative Party led by prime minister David Cameron comes in first, then it can try to continue the coalition that it formed with the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election. But this coalition may be much more difficult to organize in 2015, and it’s not unthinkable that the Conservative seats plus the Liberal Democrat seats would still not equal a majority.
It’s possible that the number of seats won by each party might engender some rather odd coalitions. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a largely Protestant party from Northern Ireland, is likely to win eight seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a largely Catholic party from Northern Ireland, is likely to win 3 seats. (It’s unlikely that the DUP and the SDLP would ever be in the same coalition government.)
The election has also brought the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to a more prominent position in the debate than the party previously held. While the SNP argues for Scotland’s independence from the UK, the UKIP argues for Britain’s freedom from the European Union.
The Same Old Mistakes
How has this happened? And what does this all mean for the rest of Europe?
The political landscape of Britain has been shifting for much of the past decade. The historic grip of either the Conservative Party (the “Tories,” think: Margaret Thatcher) or the Labour Party (think Tony Blair) was cracked wide open in the British election of 2010.
Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain’s third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, hammered the first blow against the old system by winning a television debate in 2010 against his rivals by arguing that the voters had more alternatives than the Conservatives or Labour:
Don’t let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties who have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years, making the same promises and breaking the same promises, making the same old mistakes again and again.”
In the end, the Liberal Democrats enabled a near-Conservative victory, and Conservative leader David Cameron formed a coalition government with Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
Over the past five years, things haven’t gotten better for the namebrand British political parties. Voters have continued drifting away from the major parties. Unfortunately for the Liberal Democrats, their alliance with the Tories made them, in voter’s minds, as suspect as the other major parties, and support for the Liberal Democrats has slipped dramatically.
Last September, as polls showed the Scottish independence referendum nearing 50 percent, all the political parties in Westminster rallied to keep Scotland in the union. This created a rare alliance of the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties which sent their leaders to Scotland to plead for the country to vote down the independence referendum.
Against this alliance the SNP stood alone.
In the end, the mainline parties from London – in England – succeeded in beating back the independence referendum – 55 percent No, to 45 percent Yes. But the victory came at a price for all the parties, particularly the Labour Party.
The Scots have a historic memory of large forces from England moving north to bend them to their will. In addition, Scotland generally favors more progressive policies than the bulk of England. For this reason, the Labour Party tends to win the Scottish seats in the UK parliament. Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister, was Scottish, and Tony Blair was born there.
Unfortunately for the Labour Party, Scottish voters have begun seeing the Labour party as being essentially a clone of the Conservative Party, which rarely wins seats in Scotland. The Labour Party is now known in many parts of Scotland as the “Red Tories” – red for the Labour Party’s red rose symbol and “Tory” as the nickname for the Conservative Party.
Signs reading “Red Tories Out!” can be found all over Scotland. Scottish Labour Party leader Jim Murphy, and comedian Eddie Izzard, were forced to flee a Glasgow rally on Monday after a group of hecklers confronted the pair and shouted, “Red Tories Out!” until the pair made an unscheduled exit from the rally.
Polls show that the SNP will likely be the third largest party in Westminster (passing the Liberal Democrafts), even though the SNP only stands for elections in Scottish seats. Polls predict the SNP to win somewhere between 50 to 59 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. The whole UK parliament comprises 650 seats — 533 in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland.
UKIP in 2010 was considered a fringe party. In the past five years, its forceful leader, Nigel Farage, has brought the issue of Britain’s membership in the European Union front and center. While UKIP doesn’t seem likely to win many seats in parliament, the party has pushed the issue of Britain’s membership in the EU to the forefront.
Farage has served as a member of the European Parliament since 1999, which has provided him with a platform for haranguing numerous officials of the European Union.
The Labour Party has generally favored involvement in the EU, while the Conservatives have historically been cold to the EU.
A major issue in the 2010 election was whether the UK would join the Eurozone. Gordon Brown, the Labour prime minister in 2010, was generally eager for the UK to join the Eurozone, although polls in the UK showed that such a move was generally unpopular. It was one thing for the Conservative Party to refuse to join the Eurozone, but the party seemingly had no real intention of leaving the EU itself, but UKIP has changed the tone of the debate.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has a political platform. Its sole interest is to have Britain withdraw from the EU. If the party were to achieve this goal, then it would likely cease to exist and turn the keys to government back to the Conservative Party from whence most of its members came.
The United Kingdom is a mere exemplar of Europe’s shifting political landscape. Similar battles are flaring up in most countries in Europe. The general argument relates to the nature of representative democracy. Many Scots don’t believe that they are fairly represented by a government in London. Many Britains don’t believe they are fairly represented by a government in Brussels or a parliament in Strasbourg. The same situation operates in many other European countries, such as Catalonia and Belgium, as well as countries that have already ceased to exist like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
This situation will continue evolving for many years and will obviously create periods of instability.
The bottom line: All this rearrangement likely will end up bringing a far greater degree of representational government to Europeans than anything they have previously known. Stay tuned.
For aNewDomain, I’m Tom Ewing.
Image one: Palace of Westminster
Image two: Red Tories Out