TL:DR – The election results showcase both the strengths and weaknesses of the British political system … and highlight the risk of trouble ahead.
That David Cameron emerged from Thursday’s election as the undisputed winner is … well, indisputable. Commanding a majority of seats in Westminster, the Tories can rule without needing to seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats or anyone else. This is both good and bad for Cameron; he can be an unfettered Prime Minister, like Blair and Thatcher, but he will also be unable to fall back on the suggestion that he would take sterner measures (on anything really) were it not for the Liberal Democrats. This may seem a chance to show his mettle …
… But it also highlights risks for Cameron in the very near future.
The British political system is fairly simple. There are currently 650 seats in the House of Commons, representing 650 constituencies. The political party that commands the majority of those seats can, on the surface, run the country to suit itself. (Cameron won 331 seats; he needed a bare minimum of 323.) However, there are checks and balances written into the system. In order to rule, Cameron must avoid annoying his backbenchers – and, because he has a very small majority (the defection of 9 MPs would be enough to weaken the government severely) he cannot afford to alienate even one backbencher. Indeed, in some ways, Cameron’s position is actually weaker than it was prior to the election.
That, on the surface, makes no sense. The Tories have a solid block of seats. However, over the period of coalition government, Cameron could call on the Liberal Democrats too; dissident Tory MPs were simply less important than they would be in a purely Tory government. The growing Tory faction that wants to get tough on Europe, either to revise Britain’s relationship with the EU or simply get out altogether, is in a position to cripple Cameron’s position. In order to appease them, Cameron must … well, get tough on Europe, which will make it harder to come to any substantial agreement with the EU. Cameron may then find himself forced to back a referendum on the EU because his own backbenchers made it impossible to actually come to terms with Brussels. He’s already talking about a referendum within the next couple of years.
But the Tories have reason to celebrate. They won.
And so, unfortunately, did the SNP.
The relationship between Scotland and England has little in common with the relationships between US states and the Federal Government. Put crudely, the American Founding Fathers worked hard to shape a government out of nothing; Britain is the result of endless compromises, power struggles and divisions worked out over time. The Act of Union that united Scotland and England effectively abolished both countries, instead forging the United Kingdom out of both of them. Westminster didn’t recognise any suggestion that the UK was divided among regional lines. It simply wasn’t designed to consider Scotland a separate, but united nation. Indeed, it was a contradiction in terms to suggest so.
However, the SNP fed Scottish Nationalism – and showed a frightening lack of respect for the results of the recent referendum. The current position – the SNP holding almost all of the seats in Scotland – cannot fail, but to add more regional struggles to British politics. Westminster’s very failure to admit the existence of regions only adds to the problem. If Scottish MPs can vote on purely English issues, it might well (as was predicted before the election) have the ability to wag the dog – that is, to go into coalition with a mainstream party and use its votes to get another referendum out of Westminster. Like so many other elites – the EU, in particular – the SNP feels we voted the wrong way, so they’re happy to hold another election in the hopes we will give them the right answer this time.
I’ve listed in my earlier posts the many reasons why the SNP’s brand of independence for Scotland is likely to prove disastrous, so I will merely add one thing to the debate; the SNP lied. They lied about the promise of the UK’s oil fields. The SNP would have led us to ruin. They have also proven themselves profoundly undemocratic and, as such, should not be allowed anywhere near power.
There is, however, a potentially graver problem looming on the horizon. By number of votes cast, UKIP came third … but only won one seat in Westminster. (This is a result of the ‘first past the post’ system – a candidate for a seat can win with less than 50% of the votes if the remaining votes are distributed among his opponents.) This is both a very real set of gains for the UKIP and a minor disaster – their ability to influence politics has been sharply limited. I have a feeling this will mean trouble in the future. What is the price of democracy if a party can do very well in raw numbers and yet fail to translate this into any real political gains?
This hasn’t always been bad for Britain. The need to win seats has kept a whole set of dangerous minority parties out of power. But, in a time of change and uncertainty, what will this issue mean for the future?
There are some good things in this election result. For better or worse, we have a single party in a commanding position – and it can’t stray too far from its roots. Furthermore, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been given a great deal of incentive to clean house and redesign themselves for the future. But the combination of SNP gains and UKIP weaknesses, I suspect, will haunt us for many years to come.