UK Election Result: I See Trouble Ahead

9 May

TL:DR – The election results showcase both the strengths and weaknesses of the British political system … and highlight the risk of trouble ahead.

David and Samantha Cameron

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.

29 Responses to “UK Election Result: I See Trouble Ahead”

  1. R Godfrey May 9, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

    how is continuing to make an argument for independence showing a ‘disregard for the results of a referendum?’ the xenophobic anti-EU faction of the Tory party has been going strong since the original referendum, contentiously calling for us to go back to the 1900s period of arms race with Europe, so should they have never got started? Should the anti-globalisation (and usually pro-Soviet) left never have started it’s anti-EU campaigns?

    • R Godfrey May 9, 2015 at 7:31 pm #

      oh a thought occurs: Will you show ‘respect for the results of the referendum’ if we have an in/out and vote ‘in’ and become pro-EU? If not, on what grounds do you criticise the SNP?

    • chrishanger May 9, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

      It’s been less than a YEAR since the referendum and there hasn’t been any major change justifying a second bid for independence.


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      • R Godfrey May 9, 2015 at 10:30 pm #

        still does not make continuing to argue for it ‘ignoring it’, that would take unilaterally declaring independence, or an action of similar scale. Frankly given how Scotland is treated (especially being the main site for nuclear power operations and nuclear weapons bases, which if they are as safe as claimed could be placed in London) and with Cameron declaring the SNP ‘illegitimate’ in a recent interview, as well as the old argument from the Browns premiership about a ‘Scottish invasion’ I’d be mightily hacked off with Westminster as well, whether independence is a good idea or not (most likely not, unless the UK leaves the EU, in which case bailing from the sinking ship as fast as possible would be a good plan to say the least), the level of vitriol flowing both ways has become self sustaining, and Scottish voters elected them, in a landslide, love them or hate them, they won a massive ‘democratic’ (as much as fptp ever is) victory, buyers remorse about the referendum is a real danger at the moment, and seems to be a real force.

      • Duncan Cairncross May 10, 2015 at 9:51 am #

        “However, the SNP fed Scottish Nationalism – and showed a frightening lack of respect for the results of the recent referendum”.

        The referendum where all of the big guns were on one side?
        Where the NO campaign outspent the other by 20:1?
        Where immediately after the referendum the Tories started talking back the various concessions they had made?
        Didn’t even give it a couple of weeks for the voters to forget!

        In the election we had the party that had campaigned all out about how important it was that Scotland remained part of the union saying that Scottish votes were somehow less important than English votes and that Scottish MP’s to our British Parliament should not be allowed to vote on certain subjects

        That Scottish votes were somehow illegitimate

        I suspect that a large percentage of the 55% “No” vote
        (If it actually was that high given the partisan nature of the counting)
        Has looked at the way the Tories have behaved since then and would love the opportunity to change their votes

      • chrishanger May 10, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

        With all due respect, I think you’re confusing several points.

        First, the Westminster Parliament does NOT recognise Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales as separate entities, let alone independent nations. As far as it is concerned, the only state is Britain. There are 650 British MPs; it doesn’t really consider them Scottish, English, etc no matter where they come from or who they represent. From this point of view, the suggestion that ‘Scotland voted against the Iraq War, but got the war anyway’ is nonsense. British MPs voted in favour of the war.

        (From this POV, Cameron would be perfectly within his rights to tell the SNP to go perform an anatomical impossibility. They don’t have a majority of votes in Westminster. Indeed, given the way the system works, this would not be remotely anti-democratic.)

        Second, the rise of Scottish Nationalism and the creation of a Scottish Parliament has created a push-back in England. The Scottish Parliament has all the powers devolved to it; Westminster doesn’t attempt to take those powers for itself. This has created a situation whereupon Scottish MPs can vote on matters than only affect England, while English MPs cannot vote on matters concerning Scotland. Given that this gives the SNP a surprising amount of clout, I don’t see why English MPs wouldn’t be annoyed about it. In fact, the Tories have plenty of good reasons to oppose it and very few not to oppose it.

        From their point of view, this is a case of illegitimate votes. How would you feel if I had influence over your life when you didn’t have any influence over mine?

        Third, which big guns are we talking about? The bottom line in the UK; one man, one vote. At base, JK Rowling and the others still only have one vote each. Frankly, suggesting that the ‘big guns’ made a real difference is insulting to the voters on both sides.

        Fourth, I do think that Cameron panicked a little as the referendum drew closer (I predicted that some promises would be delayed at the time.) However, the SNP also lied about the prospects for oil in the future. If there are reconsiderations, they are on both sides.


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  2. ZC May 9, 2015 at 7:35 pm #

    It seems that with UKIP getting so many votes but only 1 seat would just make them a powerful minority in many constituencies. I am interested to see how the party does with Nigel Farage’s resignation. He is a blast to listen to speak in the EU.

    • R Godfrey May 9, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

      you mean he actually turns up sometimes, rather than taking the money and avoiding actually doing any work?

    • chrishanger May 9, 2015 at 9:47 pm #

      It doesn’t matter.

      We hold elections on a 4-year cycle. Whoever is elected stays elected unless they change parties, quit or die.


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      • R Godfrey May 9, 2015 at 10:31 pm #

        true, but the hypocrisy of complaining that the EU parliament is ignoring you, when you rarely if ever show up, have grouped yourself with neo-nazis and refuse to take part in committees your are invited to, is amusing.

  3. R Godfrey May 10, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    oh and what do you mean by ‘clean house and redesign themselves?’ Become far right hyper-militarists like your characters?

    • R Godfrey May 10, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

      don’t get me wrong I enjoy them as stories, but the politics is terrifying if I stop to think about it

      • Duncan Cairncross May 11, 2015 at 6:08 am #

        Hi Chris
        I didn’t make it clear
        On the election/referendum the “Big Guns” are the media

        On the referendum especially the BBC – long considered a “neutral” was very very partisan

        The rest of the media is normally partisan – especially as 90% is owned by people who don’t pay taxes in the UK!

        But it does still make a difference which is why the amount of publicity and spend on elections is controlled
        (Which did not stop the mass media in the UK from spending the last year shouting that Miliband was a disaster waiting to happen)

        The referendum had no control on spending at all – so the mass media spent a huge amount of resources on the “no” vote

        I can only kibitz on events in my old homeland as I made the move to a “better place” 15 years ago

      • chrishanger May 11, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

        Where do you live now? We’re planning to start wandering again.

        I’m not sure you can blame the result on the media. I think the voters took a long hard look at the facts and thought better of it. Let’s face it – there’s no great hatred between Scotland and England and we’re definitely not an oppressed country. Why rock the boat?


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    • chrishanger May 11, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

      Well … if they want

      More practically, each political party has a natural base. Apart from New Labour, the parties rarely manage to get much support outside their bases; this explains, I believe, why the Tories still won an election even after John Major had replaced the (supposedly) detested Thatcher. New Labour built a coalition that seduced Tories … at the price of alienating their natural supporters. This is at least partly why New Labour soured so quickly, but the Tories wasted a great deal of time soul-searching and didn’t manage to capitalise on their enemy’s weaknesses. Present-day Labour never managed to recapture the vast base of New Labour.

      The Liberal Democrats are in a hole because they were far too closely linked to the Tories; i.e. they copped the blame without any counter-balancing success. This cost them votes; perversely, I believe, it didn’t harm the Tories because the Tories could blame their failures on the Liberal Democrats.

      The SNP’s natural base is Scotland … and it has probably reached its zenith now, after the election. They literally cannot expand into England without reshaping themselves into something that isn’t the SNP.

      Now, of course, the question is if Cameron can hold a Tory-only government together.


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      • R Godfrey May 12, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

        Fair enough answer, thank you.

  4. A. J. NolteAJNolte May 11, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

    To me, the SNP looks like the British equivalent of the BQ/PQ in Quebec, namely, the population will continue voting for them–while voting down independence referenda–in order to (A) ddrive national politics leftward and (B) try to extort more consessions out of the national government. The difference, of course, is that Britain is a unitary rather than a federal state, so it’s a bit of a trick for your government to actually give said concessions without a lot of push-back. Oh, and of course, the language issue is a huge difference. But the pattern you see in Scotland–independence votes failing while pro-independence parties win at a national and local level–is actually a pretty common tactic for secessionist-minded regions in democratic countries, and tends to lead, over time, to increased decentralization.

    Europe will be… interesting. I’m not a huge fan of the eurocratic vision of a United States of Europe which can contend with the U.S. for great power status for a couple of reasons: their track record isn’t entirely democratic, Brussels hasn’t shown any willingness or ability to be responsible for its own security while fostering classical continental anti-Americanism and, as an American myself, I don’t relish the idea of a power enimical to my country’s interests rising on the back of our security guarantee. So Britain out of the EU has some emotional appeal to me. OTOH, if Britain can essentially use the threat of withdrawal, combined with tactical alliances with Eastern European countries, to weaken the hold of the United States of Europe vision held by the continental Western Europeans, and restore the idea of a common market without so much of the political union that has frankly undemocratic aspects, I’d actually be all for that. On balance, free trade is a really good thing.

    I do agree whole-heartedly, Chris, about the problems Cameron’s likely to face; he seems to be badly out of step with his back-benchers, particularly vis-à-vis Europe, and that’s going to make his job pretty difficult. Further, I doubt those Lib-Dem voters who defected to the Tories have magically abandoned the Europhilia common among Lib-Dems, meaning they’ll be discontented, to say the least, with too overt a move toward Euroskepticism. I see a lot of free votes on EU policy in the future of this particular government.

    • R Godfrey May 11, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      Thing is American and UK interests are not the same, we have far more common interests with the other Euro nations than the US, and as a brilliant lecture by JOHN MEARSHEIMER, ‘Why China Cannot Rise Peacefully’, given in 2012 at the university of Ottawa, makes it clear, that the US interest is to disrupt, destroy (politically or physically) and isolate any attempt by any power to become a regional hegemony, as it can brook no rivals, so our choice is clear given that: be an appendage of American foreign policy, often against our own interests in exchange for protection, or go further into a united Europe, which has far more common interests with us, and we would have more influence over, in common defence.

      • Dennis the Menace May 11, 2015 at 7:47 pm #

        “Ottawa, makes it clear, that the US interest is to disrupt, destroy (politically or physically) and isolate any attempt by any power to become a regional hegemony”

        FINALLY someone on the interwebs who understands US geopolitical imperatives.

        For anyone interested in what all of them are, in order of priority (like an onion’s layers, from core to outer edge:

        1. Dominate the Greater Mississippi Basin
        – actions: Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Treaty of 1846, Mexican Cession of 1848, Annexation of Texas, Homestead Acts and Military Cantonment of settlement paths, Transcontinental Railroad, etc.

        2. Eliminate All Land-Based Threats to the Greater Mississippi Basin
        – actions: Mexican War of 1846, Civil War

        3. Control the Ocean Approaches to North America
        – actions: Monroe Doctrine, Alaska Purchase, Hawaiian Annexation, Spanish-American war, Lend-Lease Act to acquire British bases in Bermuda and elsewhere.

        4. Control the World’s Oceans
        – actions: World War II, formation of NATO and security treaties with Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

        5. Prevent any Potential Challengers from Rising
        Definition of challenger: Only two regions outside of North America can give rise to a power that can threaten the US: South America and Eurasia. South America is a long shot that can — and has — been easily thwarted from the get go either via economic pressure or gunboat diplomacy. This is why the Sovs sponsored various revolutionary movements in South America during the Cold War.
        Eurasia has been and usually is the main threat for some challenger to arise. But to do that, the challenger needs to attain hegemony over Eurasia first like the US does in North America.
        – actions: Realpolitik like when Teddy Roosevelt interceded in the Russo-Japanese War to prevent Japan from dominating all of east Eurasia or at least slow its dominance. Stopping the Nazis — mostly by propping up Britain and Russia so their boys could die by the tens of millions instead of Americans, with America finally invading a weakened Germany and ‘saving the world’ at the end. Containing the post-war Soviets (a case of what has to be done when a Eurasian hegemon does succeed in rising or comes close to), splitting China off form the Soviet Union. Ditto with the failed policies like The Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, Vietnam, etc.

        Current day actions: Playing Indians and Chinese off against each other, playing Japan and China off against each other, playing everybody else against China (as needed), playing Israel off against the Arab world. Playing Russia off against eastern NATO nations.

        Other actions not directly tied just to one of the above but used to buttress all of them: Bretton Woods Agreement, World Bank funding, trade agreements (NAFTA and WTO). The post-Cold War Germans have adopted similar strategies to secure its geopolitical imperatives or try to — just ask Greece today and all those Irish taxpayers who bailed out the banksters while the Icelanders got smart and said ‘fuck you!’ instead.

        Barak Obama either does not comprehend these geopolitical imperatives or just doesn’t agree with them (see: Poland & Czech Republic, Obama throwing them under the bus, Philippines & Chinese garrisoning of Philippines islands, Obama throwing Manila under the bus, and US Navy: being underfunded). But when he’s out of office the US will resume adhering to them or suffer the consequences for continuing not doing so.

  5. Dennis the Menace May 11, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    “…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”

    Here in America, Obama had de facto control of the White House and both houses of Congress from 2009 – 2011 and still got away with blaming all of his failures on the GOP. Your politicians either just don’t seem competent enough compared to US Democrats OR the UK has a much freer press that isn’t total Pravda for one political party.

    After reading the Britt press, my gut tells me it is 1:7 ratio between the former and the latter explanations. 🙂

  6. Dennis the Menace May 11, 2015 at 7:15 pm #

    “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.”

    Didn’t the existence of the Scottish Office and separate legal systems sort of suggest otherwise, at least as far as intentions go?

    And wasn’t Scotland forced into the Act of Union for mostly economic reasons? That is what also happened that caused America to abandon its first constitution for one with a more stronger central government. It is also how the State of Vermont entered the Union (Vermont became independent of England AND New York AND New Hampshire after the Revolutionary War and stayed independent until being admitted into as the 14th state under the new constitution years alter)

    “They have also proven themselves profoundly undemocratic and, as such, should not be allowed anywhere near power.”

    You can say that about 90% of all revolutionary political movements. What is great about what you’ve unearthed is that you’ve discovered yet more empirical evidence that this is so.

    “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?”

    Ask Al Gore. The raw answer that still bites him: People eventually get over it.

    “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?”

    Germany finally figured out how to deal with it via their mixed-member system. And they had both experience in failing to as well as high motivation to keeping ‘a whole set of dangerous minority parties out of power’ I wish we had the mixed-member system in the US House of Representatives.

    Another option is the Athenian system of choosing assemblies via sortition (by lot, like juries). You end up with a decent representation of the populace who really don’t want to be there as much as possible in control of the lower chamber and that certainly can not be any worse than the craven idiots we have now.

    “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” – William F. Buckley, Jr.

    “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. ”

    AND, you have one-stop political accountability with the voters — something that the US doesn’t really have even at the state level. It is why Governors and Presidents get undeserved blame/praise by the body politic who only got one semester of Civics (if that) in high school in their junior or senior year while most of them were high or cutting class to get laid under the bleachers. MOST have never been taught anything about the Constitution, either. And those that have were ‘taught’ political correct BS as a ‘re-interpretation’ of it — which is worse than them not being taught it at all, in my view.

    Last: You might want to explain what a ‘backbencher’ is. I think I know what it is but the term is not used in America. I’m not sure it is even used in Canada anymore, either.

    • R Godfrey May 11, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

      I can help with ‘backbencher: an MP with not ministerial or party duties, so not a member of an office of state, not a minister, not a party officer, simply a constituency MP associated with the party. Since they have no other job, they are pretty hard to control, and the Tory party more than labour (but it has happened to both) have a history of back benchers not really being loyal to the government (this has it’s good and bad points,), but they can drag the party away from the manifesto it won the election on, and towards hard and far right positions. Labour has slightly more ability to ignore it’s back benchers, as it could historically count on the Tories and/or Liberal-Democrats to push through polices that where to right wing for the back bench to stomach.

    • chrishanger May 11, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

      That’s one of the reasons the UK is a confused mess – it’s forged from a hundred incidents that date all the way back to Magna Carta.


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