Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence.
Under the banner “Better Together,” the British media and political establishment campaigned to keep the United Kingdom united. They won that battle: Scots voted against independence 55 to 45 percent. But as the entire British electorate goes to the polls to choose a new Parliament on May 7, it is clear that the political establishment has lost the war—and not just in Scotland.
These elections, more than any in over a century, reveal an electoral landscape so fractured by region and party allegiance that the political class barely seems able to keep it together. In reality, there are four or five separate elections taking place, rendering British politics more volatile and unpredictable than at any time in recent memory.
In the past, you could reasonably rely on one of two outcomes for any British election: a Labour government or a Conservative (Tory) one. Smaller parties, like the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the Liberal Party, and the Welsh nationalist party (Plaid Cymru), could look forward only to a handful of seats in their strongholds. Thanks to Britain’s winner-take-all system, that basic Labour/Tory duopoly persisted throughout the postwar era: Between them, in 1951, they shared 96 percent of the vote.
But as Labour first drifted and then stampeded to the right—abandoning its commitment to unions, undermining the welfare state, presiding over growing inequality, and then bombing anywhere the United States demanded—the party lost a significant element of its core support. And as the Conservatives, in a struggle that pitted the traditional and patriotic against the modern and global, tore themselves apart over Britain’s relationship with the European Union, many of their most loyal voters also went their own way.
These changes both reflected and responded to real developments in British society and beyond. The end of empire, postcolonial and then European migration, neoliberal globalization, the decline of the manufacturing and trade unions, the growth of the service sector, the creation of the European Union—all of this forced a reckoning with the postwar certainties that had created two-party dominance. As just one example of how much the country has been transformed, Indian restaurants (which, incidentally, make the nation’s favorite food) employ more people than shipbuilding, coal, iron, and steel—once the bulwarks of the organized working class—put together. The United Kingdom is not what it was; we shouldn’t be too surprised if the political culture isn’t either.
By the 2010 election, the two parties could manage only 65 percent of the vote between them. With no single party able to garner an absolute majority in Parliament, the Conservatives, who had the greatest number of seats, forged the first peacetime coalition since the Great Depression, with the Liberal Democrats (whose leader, Nick Clegg, was once a Nation intern).
In the intervening five years, the fracturing has not only accelerated but spread. Disgruntled Conservatives opposed to the EU, immigration, black people, Muslims, homosexuality, and women wearing trousers (I made the last one up, but basically any expression of modernity) formed a party called the United Kingdom Independence Party. Not dissimilar in outlook or demographic composition to the Tea Party, UKIP has a xenophobic, melancholic, pro-free-trade agenda that would open the country to foreign capital and close it to foreign culture. This is a global phenomenon. There are kindred parties in France (Front National), Germany (Alternative für Deutschland), Finland (Perussuomalaiset, or the Finns Party), Norway (Fremskrittspartiet, or the Progress Party), and elsewhere. UKIP, which topped the polls in last year’s European elections, draws its support primarily from Conservatives. As a result, it threatens both to take seats from the Tories in the southeast and to split the Conservative vote throughout England and Wales.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the independence referendum’s defeat paradoxically strengthened the SNP, providing it with a reputation as the sole authentic voice of the region. By pitching itself to the left of Labour—for free university tuition, against Trident nuclear bases—it has become the home for disaffected, working-class Labour voters. The SNP is also blessed with a formidable leader in Nicola Sturgeon, who trounced all before her in a multiparty debate. Labour, which has 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats against just six for the SNP, risks a rout: Polls put the SNP at 49 percent and Labour at 25 percent. (Labour faces a few challenges from Welsh nationalists, too, though the situation in Wales is more stable.)
Finally, the Liberal Democrats, tarnished by their coalition with the Tories and the broken promises that came with it, will see their vote slump—making them vulnerable to a resurgent Green Party, which saw a 57 percent increase in membership last year, and which could poll more nationwide than the Lib Dems.
So everybody (apart from the SNP) is threatened somewhere, either from the left or the right, and the three main parties face significant threats in many places. With seats potentially being won with just 25 percent of the vote, it’s unclear what victory will look like. The party with the most seats will get first crack at forming a government—but Sturgeon has vowed not to prop up a Conservative government, and it’s unlikely the Liberal Democrats will get enough seats to repeat the experiment of the past five years. The manifestos of all the main parties have been predictably milquetoast, and the smaller parties will want something for their support. So what changes will depend less on the horse race than the horse-trading.
Whether Britain is truly better together is debatable. But for now, its political parties are stuck with one another and will have to struggle to make it work.