The national election in Britain in May provided a devastating defeat to public opinion polls as well as political parties. The Conservative Party won an unexpected clear majority in the House of Commons, which forms governments. Prime Minister David Cameron’s new government is moving fast to exploit victory.
Opinion polls consistently predicted a dead heat between the Conservatives and Labour, the other principal political party. They were far off the mark.
The other big winner has been the Scottish National Party (SNP), which swept their region. Scotland has been a Labour bastion. The SNP has gone from six to 56 seats.
Along with Labour, the other big losers were the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The Liberal Democrats were devastated, wining only eight seats. The party held fifty-seven in the previous parliament, and were crucial to governing. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed the first coalition government since World War II.
Televised debates are now a feature of general election campaigns. During the 2010 campaign, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s strong performance in first-ever American-style televised debates with Conservative and Labour party leaders generated great visibility.
In the latest general election, a televised debate on April 2 featured the leaders of no less than seven political parties. In addition to the leaders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and Labour Party, leaders of the Green Party, Plaid Cymru of Wales, the SNP, and UKIP were present.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was an impressive standout. Last year, Scottish voters rejected independence in a special referendum. Since then, however, the SNP enjoyed a membership boom.
Another distinctively defined party leader was Nigel Farage of UKIP. His extremist skill in condemning immigration, membership in the European Union and other developments generated great attention, but not tangible general election success.
UKIP finished first in the 2014 election for representatives to the European Parliament, an impressive victory, but secured only one seat in the 2015 British general election. Farage himself was defeated for a seat in the House of Commons.
Regarding both the SNP and UKIP, British voters in total have been demonstrating pragmatism and flexibility, while rejecting extremism. Complete immediate independence for Scotland would entail substantial new burdens, including creating viable separate military and financial systems, and supporting substantial physical infrastructure. That helps explain the no vote in the referendum, while Scots keep up independence pressure by greatly expanding SNP representation in Parliament.
UKIP is a party strongly fueled by fear and hostility toward the foreign and the unfamiliar. Britain’s historic aversion to continental Europe explains how the extremist group fared well in the European election, while failing badly in this year’s general election.
The Liberal Democrats’ frustrating fate reflects more subtle irony. The earlier Liberal Party was almost extinguished by the 1950s, but managed to survive and revive long-term. The party has been attractive to activists and voters hostile to established political institutions. Joining in coalition with the Conservatives undercut this appeal.
Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats now have credibility as well as experience in government. The narrow Conservative House of Commons majority may yet bring another coalition government. Traditionally Britain has been governed by one party; that is no longer certain.
Prime Minister Cameron’s government has just presented a July budget which includes a new higher minimum wage, and considerable emphasis on devolution to local government across the nation. Look for greater independence for Scotland. Tough austerity measures are also apparent.
Britain is changing, but it remains pragmatic.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur I. Cyr: Britain’s election surprise – and challenges