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Britain's election: rise of Scottish and English nationalists threatens old order


During a flying visit to see Tony Blair in Downing Street, Bill Clinton once remarked that he'd happily exchange the constitutional powers granted to an American president for those available to a British prime minister with a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

And that's really the point of next month's UK general election, in which the current Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and his Labour challenger, Ed Miliband, are battling for the top job: this year, those powers are diminished more than they have been for a century.

When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they were determined to prevent a tyranny like George III's, and so separated out the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government to keep each other in check.

That didn't happen in Britain, where reforming governments wrestled royal prerogatives away from the monarch, and kept most to themselves.

Thus, in a parliamentary system where the leader of the party with most elected members of parliament (MPs) gets to become prime minister, a Commons majority allows the cabinet to do "anything except change a man into a woman", as the old Victorian joke goes.

That's the theory. But in practice, the options facing Britain's political leaders when the votes are counted on May 7 will be more difficult than they have been for decades – and mostly for reasons American voters will easily recognise.

Collapse of the two-party system

Public mistrust of government is high in Britain, and deference to the political elite has also collapsed as economic woes erode living standards. Amid all that, voters are deserting the Conservatives and Labour, Britain's two main parties of the right and left since the 1920s, in droves.

In the 1951 election, Labour and the Conservatives – or Tories – shared 96% of the vote. By 2010 they could only manage 66% between them.

At the last election in 2010, Cameron – the first Tory leader since the 1960s to be educated at Eton college and Oxford University, an upper-class combination somewhat comparable to the Ivy League – successfully ousted Labour after 13 years of Blair and then Gordon Brown, but his 306 seats to Labour's 258 left him 20 short of an outright majority.

The Conservative leader was forced into the first peacetime coalition since the Great Depression, his partners the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats who had staged a revival since near-extinction in the 50s and had won 57 seats. A coalition of some kind – or a minority government, rule by a party that does not have a majority of MPs – seems likely again this year.

Labour leader Ed Miliband speaks at an election campaign event at the town hall in Bury, near Manchester.

Labour leader Ed Miliband speaks at an election campaign event at the town hall in Bury, Greater Manchester. Photograph: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Contrary to predictions, the 2010 coalition has survived its full five-year term, partly thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which Cameron and his deputy, the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, passed to stop each other walking out on the deal and triggering an early election at a self-serving moment.

They also had hopes of passing constitutional reform, but fell out over scrapping Britain's first-past-the-post voting system – also used in the US – with a European-style system of proportional representation, and replacing the House of Lords, still chosen by a mixture of appointment and inheritance, with an elected, regionally based Senate.

Hereditary lords, heirs to medieval warriors, can still vote on legislation in a 21st century democracy? Constitutional reform must be a slow process in Britain, you may well think.

Correct. But pressure for change from below is coming fast – and from two previously unlikely directions. And this is where the 2015 UK general election becomes seriously tricky.

Nationalism in Scotland – and England too

As the British empire was gradually dissolved after the second world war and its industrial base attacked by younger, nimbler economies, the cohesion of the British state weakened.


There was an impulse towards supra-nationalism in the shape of membership in the European Union, where countries that had fought each other for centuries – notably France and Germany – agreed to cooperate in the new world of superpower blocs. Britain joined late, in 1973, but some English people – perhaps steeped in Britain's maritime, free-trade and imperial traditions – felt wary or hostile towards the EU.

At the same time, long-smothered regional nationalism was reviving on Britain's Celtic fringes. In divided Ireland, it was violent; in Scotland, political, emboldened by newly discovered North Sea oil; in Wales, initially, cultural, based around the preservation of the Welsh language.

That was in the 70s. Forty years on, these rival strands are much stronger, and testing the concept of "Britishness" to destruction.

The Scottish national party has barely paused for breath since losing last September's referendum on independence for Scotland – immediately declaring itself the moral victor and demanding greater powers for Edinburgh.

Since the referendum result – 55% no, 45% yes – disaffected working-class Labour voters have flocked to the SNP. Polls suggest the Scottish nationalists, now led by Scotland's new first minister, the formidable Nicola Sturgeon, will slaughter Labour north of the border, winning dozens of Scotland's 59 seats and perhaps holding the balance of power in London. If she finds herself in that position, Sturgeon promises to block Cameron and prop up a minority Miliband administration.

— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) April 4, 2015

Knowing your audience H/t @zelo_street

Britain's Tory newspapers are busy denouncing Sturgeon as "the most dangerous woman" in the country. Cameron – whose Tories have only one seat in Scotland – warns of a Scottish veto from the people who want to break up Britain. Miliband is embarrassed.

Meanwhile, in England, the populist anti-European right, in the form of the UK independence party (Ukip), has evolved under the skilful leadership of Nigel Farage from a ragbag collection of misfits, eccentrics and renegades into a real party. It is one whose proven ability to win protest votes at four-yearly elections to the 28-nation European parliament is now threatening the status quo at Westminster. It has two MPs (both defectors from the Tories) and hopes to win more on 7 May.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Though Ukip portrays itself as free market and libertarian, it is also deeply nostalgic, socially conservative, and suspicious of immigrants and big-government bureaucracy, especially from the EU's Brussels headquarters.

Racist, homophobic and authoritarian? Certainly not, says Farage. We just want to be a self-governing sovereign state again. But Ukip's "little guy" rank-and-file is not always quite so on-message. This is disruptive Tea Party Republicanism with added potency. Imagine if Washington were required to enact laws by a mixture of Nafta and the UN, its HQ located in, say, Toronto.

Ukip's threat to the status quo is twofold. It may take enough votes away from Cameron's Tories to deny the prime minister his slim hopes of a Commons majority on May 7, or even to stop him being the largest party, which would make it hard for him to form another coalition.

In a tight race, with both main parties polling at around 34%, Ukip's rise may also hurt Miliband's prospects by peeling off Labour's equivalent of blue-collar Democrats, working-class voters fed up with stagnant wages and gay marriage, underfunded public services and "unpatriotic" liberals.

Miliband is resisting the in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU which Ukip pressure has forced Cameron to concede for 2017 if re-elected, and that might hurt the Labour leader, too.

Cameron wants to stay in the EU – though he does not, of course, want to join the single European currency – but is seeking to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership. He has pledged to hold a referendum once he has done that.

But the EU referendum is a huge gamble which could go wrong. British business prefers the Tories, but hates the risk of a British EU exit ("Brexit" in the jargon). So does the White House.

Instability, so clearly likely from the Brexit scenario if Ukip acquires enough MPs to give it leverage, is multiplied by the nationalist threat, and the explicit ambition by the SNP to break up Britain.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

So in addition to their own Tea Party, the established British parties face disruption from their equivalent of Canada's Parti Quebecois, poised to exploit power within a system they seek to destroy.

As the eurozone crisis continues, anti-establishment insurgencies like the SNP's are surfacing all over Europe: nationalist, populist, separatist, left or right.

But nowhere, not even in Greece, do identity politics combine with economic grievance more disruptively than in Britain. A nightmare stalemate may be the outcome on 7 May – more populist, more localist than ever before. More unstable, too? A second 2015 election may well follow the first.

No wonder Cameron is rapidly seeking to concede greater powers to resentful English regions and threatening English-votes-only sessions of parliament. All of a sudden, some form of federalism – just like those uppity ex-colonials have – starts to look an attractive solution for Britain.