British Elections Postscript

Widely expected to give a muffled and incoherent answer, the British electorate opted instead for a decisive one. When the votes were counted in the 2015 general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had the necessary numbers to govern on his own with a small, but workable majority. As one re-elected Tory member told the BBC Friday morning, “We’re going to have none of the muddle that was predicted.” In an astonishing result that gave fresh meaning to the word unpredictable, there was no hung Parliament, no battle for power.

It’s a result calculated to cause trepidation in Brussels and relief in Washington. Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the outcome could depend on prior negotiations to change the ground rules of Britain’s relationship with Europe. In the European Commission this is widely seen as the British wanting to remain EU members, but on their own terms: In Cameron’s Conservative Party, the widespread feeling is that Britain needs to regain some of what is perceived as lost British sovereignty to EU community rules.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic it has to be better news that the widely predicted alternative scenario of a Labor Party minority in a parliamentary alliance with the Scottish Nationals (SNP) has been averted. The SNP is opposed to nuclear warfare, and more specifically to the Trident nuclear submarine base in Scotland, potentially casting doubt on Britain’s role as America’s leading European partner, to say nothing of its role in NATO. The so-called US-UK special relationship has had its ups and downs under Cameron, and cuts in UK defense spending are likely to continue to cause bilateral problems, but at least the Conservatives remain committed Atlanticists (to use an old-fashioned term).

As it is, Cameron is going to have to address a second astonishing development in the elections—his own surprise victory being the first, of course. Facing him across the floor of the House of Commons will be the new reality of 56 SNP members having annihilated Labor in their traditional bedrock. That’s 50 more than the SNP had in the last Parliament. Watching the results unfold in Scotland Thursday night was like watching a different election taking place simultaneously—in another country.

Cameron has said he will put in motion “devolution” (the political code word for autonomy in the UK) plans for Scotland and the other United Kingdom nations quickly. But will Cameron’s offer satisfy the separatist Scots when they are in a strong position to advance their own aspirations for independence?

The surprise British result may give hope to other incumbents who will face the electorate this year in Spain, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, Estonia, and Switzerland. Does the fact that British voters clearly decided that this was not the time to change political horses bode well for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, another conservative incumbent, for example? Will the failure of fringe parties, such as Nigel Farage’s UKIP, to make a better showing despite their initial burst of popularity repeat itself elsewhere?

Finally, if there isn’t a great deal of soul-searching among members of the British polling community this week following the failure of 11 successive major surveys over the past three months to even remotely come close to a correct forecast, there certainly should be.  

OG Image: