Today UK politics is confronted by the challenge of the breakdown of the two-party system and is struggling to come up with behaviours to deal with the new reality. A UK political system predicated on the First Past The Post electoral system and the long-term historical dominance by two main nationwide parties is arguably ill-equipped to respond to a multi-party situation, made more complex by a trend towards nationalist parties in some of the component “nations” of the UK. It was said that Britain “does not love coalitions”, and yet it might be said that that is exactly what she is going to have to do.
A hung Parliament again
As opinion polls are currently showing us, it is very unlikely that one party will be able to form a government after the May 2015 general election. As in 2010 we are likely to have a “hung parliament”, with no one party having a majority. This is the norm in continental Europe but uncommon in the UK until now, in the 20th Century there being hung parliaments in only 1923-4, 1929-31 and 1974. In 2010 the result was a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat in what was then a 3-horse race with Labour. Today however we have a likely much more complex result, and no easy way for one major party to be able to form a majority-holding coalition.
The rise of nationalism in the “Celtic Fringe”
As in the late 19th Century with Ireland, we have a strong emerging nationalist movement in Scotland. The SNP are riding high after their performance in the Scottish Referendum of 2014, harnessing a backlash against Labour for supporting the unionists and a reaction to the opportunistic PM Cameron on the morning after the result taking up the cause of English nationalism with his espousal of EVEL (sic: “English Votes for English Laws”, he said). Nationalism is less pronounced in Wales but it is arguably already powerful in Northern Ireland with its own distinctive sectarian divide. Thus politicians today are finding themselves speaking of the “nations” of the UK in a way they haven’t done before. Thus, with the possibility of the SNP holding the balance of power after 2015 the future nature of the Union is up for grabs.
It can be argued that so far Britain has struggled with the notion of federalism in the UK, having opposed its development in the EU so strongly. Yet, with the appearance of a “Home Rule” movement in Scotland, with which Britain had such difficulties when Parnell campaigned so strongly for it in 19th Century Ireland, it could be that a new dispensation is needed. It is hard to argue for EVEL when the Scots have you by the balls, so to speak! Thus at present there are proposals on the table to juggle with tax powers and benefits for Scotland and adjustments to the “Barnett formula”, but no visionary ideas for the UK as a whole. Thus too, England is still in limbo, despite plenty of ideas for devolution to regional bodies from a highly centralised system centred on Westminster.
Populism and the revolt against Westminster
In much of the UK there is also the rise of populism in the form of UKIP as well as the SNP, a revolt against “Westminster” and the “political class”. The impact of globalisation, the decline of traditional industry, the retreat from the social democratic consensus from Thatcher onwards, and the neglect of the former industrial areas in the Scottish Lowlands, the North and Midlands in England, and the South Wales coal belt, has produced fertile ground for protest movements, to be compounded by the longest recession since the 1870’s, from 2008 to 2014.
It is possible that UKIP, currently with opinion poll performance at around 15%, will not only gain more seats but also, more importantly, split the vote in previously safe major party seats, with unpredictable results. With the loss of dominance in Scotland for Labour and a weakening of the Conservatives in England, neither party look likely to be able to win. Both fluctuate around 32-33% in the opinion polls. The Liberal Democrat vote has collapsed to around 7%, the price of forming the 2010 coalition, and the growing Green Party are now almost ahead of them.
The Constitution in doubt
The failure of Westminster to reform the voting system is perhaps about to come back and haunt them, an opportunity at reform having been spurned in 2011. It could be suggested that a true PR system would reduce Nationalist dominance in Scotland, but instead under the present system they could achieve a clean sweep in 2015.
Of course this just one aspect of a Constitution in doubt. In the year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, there are other pressing issues too, such as the nominated House of Lords, the growth of surveillance and the threat from Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the over-powerful executive, the question of the relationship of the UK with supra-national constraints in Europe such as the European Court of Human Rights, the need to define more clearly human rights in the UK in the digital age, and the enduring and remarkably sheer fact of the lack of a written constitution. The country that has written so many for others hasn’t even got one for itself!
If the right perform better than expected in May 2015, we could also be faced with a demand to hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EU. Although opposed by most of business and all parties except UKIP and the Conservatives, this might be the price to pay for whoever can form a government, thus plunging the UK into more uncertainty. Opinion polls show voters to be evenly divided at present (and the issue is not exactly high in people’s minds), and given past tendencies to vote in referendums against change, it is perhaps more likely that the vote will be to remain within the EU, dysfunctional though many consider it to be.One might suggest that, as on the Continent, the EU is more an issue in the minds of parts of the political class than of those that vote for it.
However all this reinforces the impression to an outsider of a country, or countries now, all at odds with itself. So what next?
Well, we’ve been here before. There have been seemingly existential threats before in modern British and UK history to the UK political system, such as the crisis over Irish Home Rule, Tariff Reform, two World Wars and near-invasion in 1940, the Depression and the unrest of the oil-crisis years of the 1970’s. To focus on the forces of instability neglects a fundamental trait in British political behaviour, the emphasis on stability, moderation and “fair play” and a remarkable ability to bring about pragmatic change in order to preserve. Yes, the British Constitution needs reform, and yet it has, historians might say, always needed reform, and the outcome has so often been a classic compromise.
After all, we play cricket, don’t we!