United Kingdom

How Britain's Election Divided the UK

The Scottish National Party's huge gains signal a major turning point in British politics.


credit: World Economic Forum / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Conservatives won a decisive and unexpected victory in last week's UK General Election, roundly beating expectations set by pollsters to claim a clear majority in the House of Commons. But the Scottish National Party (SNP) also scored major wins, even beyond what was expected. The Tory win and the SNP gains set the stage for a divided nation—and possibly the end of the U.K. as we know it.

Last September, Scots rejected independence narrowly but decisively, 55 to 45. But in last Thursday's vote, the SNP, which brought the independence referendum to a vote and has fanned the flames of independence, converted that loss into a staggering win in the UK General Election. The SNP claimed 56 of Scotland's 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour with just one seat apiece. Previously, Labour held 41 Scottish seats, with the Liberal Democrats on 11. 

It is difficult to convey the scale of this result, especially the mauling of Labour. The SNP actually won more than 50 percent of all votes cast in Scotland, something very rare in First Past the Post systems, in which candidates require only a plurality of votes to win the seat. 

Americans reading this piece will also doubtless be aware David Cameron has been re-elected Prime Minister, and the Conservative Party he leads is now able to govern alone, not in coalition.

At the same time, the Conservatives' erstwhile Coalition partner, the LibDems—who articulated a strange mix of civil libertarian and fiscally conservative policies, but also supported abolishing university tuition fees —have been all but wiped off the electoral map, losing 49 of 57 seats they previously held. Their leader and former Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, has resigned.

That the SNP would do well was spotted by most polls, although, as with the Tories' surprise win, not everyone was confident it would do this well. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, counseled caution at various points during the campaign. However, the Conservative success in England—Labour and UKIP made little headwaywas not picked up. Nate Silver, who is typically so very good at picking U.S. election results, missed badly with the U.K. Betting markets did rather better than pollsters, but even they did not predict just how well the Conservatives were going to perform.

Why did pollsters and other forecasters get the election results so wrong? Blame it on the "Shy Tory" phenomenon.

In contrast with the Scots, who told all comers that they planned to vote SNP in vast numbers, allowing for accurate predictions, the English held their cards close to their chests—or told pollsters lies about who they planned to vote for.

Yes, lies. The Shy Tory was first spotted in 1992, and has been around—to greater or lesser degrees—in every general election since. Shy Tories obscure their voting intentions, and in doing so make it difficult for public opinion surveys to produce a representative sample. As a result, they are the bane of the British pollster's existence.

It's not just an electoral phenomenon either. Two of my Scottish friends work for polling companies (one for YouGov, the other for Ipsos-MORI), and both found that the Shy Tory's shyness turns up in other surveys, from preferred brands of washing powder to favoured telly shows. It drove both round the bend, but also seemed to be an English phenomenon. "These days," one of my pollster friends told me, "an Englishman's taste in wine or pies is his castle, not his home."

In any case, the practical effect of the election, with its overall Tory win and the SNP takeover in Scotland, is that two of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom now stand for completely different things, are represented by different parties, and have rather less in common than they otherwise might.

The SNP is social democratic in outlook, but it is not socialist. SNP leader Alex Salmond went into last year's Scottish independence referendum promising a reduction in the corporate tax rate, among other canny bells and whistles designed to attract investment to Scotland.

Unlike old-style socialists, which relied on rhetoric about "seizing the means of production," the SNP sees the wealth and productivity of capitalism as a vehicle to help the disadvantaged. So it may well deregulate, or offer tax breaks to encourage business to come to the country. But it will then use transfer policies to generate a more equal income distribution. To the SNP, egalitarianism is a good unto itself.

This political outlook is an extraordinary "up yours" to the Conservatives in Westminster. Prime Minister David Cameron has, with a modicum of success, implemented "austerity" policies to pay down Britain's catastrophic debt—including significant cuts to welfare payments, particularly targeted at the disabled, and attempts to privatise bits of the NHS—a legacy of economic mismanagement by all sides of politics over many years. He thinks the SNP are living out an economic fantasy. The scale of Britain's pensions crisis suggests he may be right.

So there are now two kingdoms, both alike in dignity, in fair Britannia. Boris Johnson (yes, that Boris Johnson, the one with the scruffy blond hair and the classics degree), Mayor of London and newly elected Conservative MP, has already spoken of "some sort of federal offer" to Scotland. The system proposed—"devo-max," short for "maximum devolution"—seems very close to federalism proper, complete with revenue raising powers that include income tax and complete control over everything save foreign policy and defence.

But there's a flip-side to any such bargain, or at least there ought to be. True federalism would also require Scots MPs sitting in Westminster to refrain from voting on laws that effect only England. This could mean the creation of an English parliament, separate and apart from the rest of the UK. The "United" Kingdom, then, may start to look an awful lot like Canada, which is divided into sometimes fractious provinces. Scotland may even hold another independence referendum, much like Quebec.

In short, the Jocks were bold and the Tories were shy. A great political realignment, and perhaps even the end of the Union, may follow.

NEXT: A.M. Links: Jeb Bush 'Would Have Authorized' Iraq Invasion, Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Reaches Final Stages, Hillary Clinton's Bill Clinton Problem

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  1. You know who else wanted to leave cheery old england?

    1. John Adams when he was Ambassador?

    2. The Puritans?


      1. Grandpa John and Granny Priscilla.

    3. The 8th Doctor?

    4. My Mayflower ancestors!!!!!

    5. Dana Perrino?

    6. The smart people!

  2. voting on laws that effect only England

    Would England not exist without these votes? I haz confyooz.



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  5. A federated kingdom doesn’t really seem like all that bad a thing. If Scotland and England have drifted that far apart culturally, then they should be able to look after more of their own affairs without the other butting in.

    Of course, these types of political shifts are often transient, so it may be prudent to wait, say, half a generation or so before really shaking things up.

    1. I believe you’re spot on. For myself, however, I could give a shit about te UK – I think this is the case in the US. We’re way beyond a manageable scale, and there’s clearly at least a “red/blue” thing. Why do so many think it’s crazy to talk about subdividing?

      Oh, I know – they’ll SAY it’s because that’s all crazy talk and Civil War and blah blah blah – but it’s really cause both sides want to rule the other and force them to their views.

      It always comes down to force.

      Me – I’d be happy to see Cali as its own republic, same with IL, NY. Oh, yeah, we tried that in 1776….it was a confederation of independent, sovereign states unified for certain specific functions, like defense…..

      OK, never mind. Mankind is and will forever be fucked – too old for the training I am…

      1. but it’s really cause both sides want to rule the other and force them to their views

        Nailed it.

        I do think there is a danger in sub-dividing too much. The U.S. has enjoyed relative peace within its own borders (with the obvious exception of the Civil War) because a sense of shared national unity. I worry that if we undo all the ties that bind that we’ll see major conflict after a couple of generations, maybe less. Doesn’t have to be war. Trade barriers, diplomatic kerfuffles. That’s not good for anyone.

        But a return to Constitutional federalism, or even something along the lines of the Canadian system, would be a big improvement.

        1. I hear you about the potential for friction down the road – I share that, too. But that’s the direction I’d like to go. I’m getting fucked daily having to pay for and support shit that’s basically driven by the New York City and LA/SF/Portland. Fuck it – I just want to be left alone and live in farmland in peace.

          I don’t want to force anyone else to do what I like. The issue is, the Progs want to force me to live like them. Ain’t. Happenin’….

          *starts loading M1*

          1. An even larger potential problem is that if we all start speaking different languages, the Reason boards will get very confusing.

            1. Meh…I understand the Canadians here almost half the time.

          2. NY gets backs less in taxes than it puts in, so… you’re good. The people who are really getting fucked are those of us who live there.

            1. I was going to say….

            2. Yet, apparently, you continue to vote for more.

              And, please, keep every penny. I don’t want it.

              1. Meh, after the free-shit brigade is done destroying places like NY they’ll just move on to wherever you are.

                1. See: Colorado and Nevada after the exodus of SWPL from California.

            3. This is the worst meme out there. Even when it comes to direct payments (eg farm subsidies), the payment often does not go to someone in that state. It goes to the farmer/operator who then sends it on to the farmland owner (more often than not hedge funds on the coasts). Not to mention the deceit of ‘feds as direct landowner’ where money spent either to deliberately depopulate a state (eg all water/etc decisions) or NIMBY stuff (toxic waste sites, ICBM silos, etc) gets to be called a subsidy to people in that state.

        2. Relative peace? There’s a war on women, gays, and black men being waged by red state politicians in all these solidly blue cities.

        3. a return to Constitutional federalism

          Yep. Simply do *that*.

        4. That’s not good for anyone.

          Neither is a one-size-fits-all top-down Total State.

      2. Do you really think the prigs will let it work that way? The only solution is their removal or extermination. They will never stop. Ever.

  6. The implications of the election for the UK’s relationship with the EU may be bigger than the implications of the election are for the UK’s relationship with Scotland, but over the long term, if Scotland leaves the UK, that’s going to be good news for the Tories (if not for Cameron) over the long term.

    Yeah, if Scotland leaves, a lot of people in what’s left of the UK will blame Cameron for the dissolution of the UK, but it’s also important to remember that in terms of leftist politics, Scotland is to the UK as California is to the U.S.

    Imagine how well the Republicans would do, both in Congress and in Presidential elections, if California were to leave the United States. The Democrats might not win another national election for an entire generation (or two). Well, Scotland is further to the left, politically, than Californians are in the U.S.

    So, let’s review. If Scotland stays, that’s good news for Cameron in the short run. If Scotland leaves, that’s good news for the Tories over the long run.

    The Republicans in the U.S. should have it so bad.

    1. We sound probably start a petition for a California secession (we’ll be able to get it easily once we get a GOP POTUS).

      The trick is that we have to have our bags packed and families loaded into the car to leave before California puts the walls up to keep us in.

      1. Just like an Eagles song, goddamit!!

        You can check out any time you’d like
        But you can never leave

      2. Not a bad idea. With all the talk about secession and a state having the right to secede, nobody ever talks about the rights of states to kick another state out of the union. What if the other states vote to kick California out? Would that be constitutional?

    2. If Scotland goes fully-autonomous but doesn’t leave, that is just about perfect for Cameron, and that seems likely.

      The other interesting result was that there were 3 times the votes for UKIP that there were for SNP, but they only got one seat. I am sure they will start picking up seats, and it suggests UK might well leave the EU.

      1. What remains to be seen is will UKIP’s continued growth be sufficiently large to counter the offset of massive importation and subsidized procreation of the Mohammedan sect.

      2. UKIP was basically demolished. What makes you think they’ll “pick up seats”?

        1. You are wrong. They were second place in scores of districts. They had zero second places last election. They are not demolished at all, they are just not yet winning in a first past the post system.

          1. Fair enough – but I imagine it is difficult to topple the 2 big teams, right?

        2. The UKIP vote is far nor dispersed than a nationalist party like SNP. UKIP gained 9.5% over their 2010 showing, which suggests a party in ascent. The next biggest jump was 3.1% for SNP.

        3. Demolished? They doubled their total votes from the last election, and in fact got nearly 3 times the votes the SNP did. If Britain had proportional representation rather than first past the post, they’d have scored around 87 seats. While they might have hoped for more seats, they’re still a party on the rise, not decline.

          1. If Britain had proportional representation rather than first past the post

            Stupid question… why would Britain ever do this? Doesn’t such a system basically mean that members are all elected at-large?

            1. There are various types of proportional representation (PR). Most likely the UK would adopt a type of rank voting (single transferable vote) along the lines of what is used in the Republic of Ireland and for the Australian Senate. The entire country would not be one district. Instead, districts would elect for example three to five members each. The UK almost adopted such a system before WWI.

              1. so basically voters would lose all representation and political parties themselves would decide who gets elected

                1. Under Single transferable vote you are incorrect. A voter votes for individual candidates. Single transferable vote can be used for non-partisan elections. I have belonged to groups here in the US that use it for their governing boards; one being a church I used to go to.

    3. “If Scotland leaves, that’s good news for the Tories over the long run.”

      Scotland provided a fair number of seats for Labour and the Lib Dems. Without Scotland, Labour is confined to the urban areas and parts of the industrial north. (It becomes even more difficult if the electoral commission equalizes district population sizes. Right now many urban Labour districts have historically had far fewer population than rural, suburban districts. If all the districts had roughly the same population Labour would loose even more seats.) Labour’s only chance to govern would be to hobble together a coalition of all the other parties against the Conservatives(unlikely) The Lib Dems have been reduced, likely for decades, to a rump party on the fringe of UK politics, back to where they were in the 1950s and ’60s.

  7. I would be “shy” if I were a UK Tory too. Leftists have a tendency to be a little nasty there.


    2. Leftists have a tendency to be a little nasty there.

      And they’re getting that way here too. Pretty soon we’ll have the phenomenon of “shy Republicans” and “shy libertarians”.

      1. We’ve had that for two generations. Remember the “silent majority”?

      2. the last US election had polls that underestimated the vote on the right too. Some think it’s the exact same phenomenon.

      3. There have been a record number of guns sold in this country.

        And yet, fewer people admit to owning them.

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  9. I was surprised when I moved here to find out how devolved the UK government is. Scotland is already awfully close to running itself and will now probably go fully autonomous, except sharing defense and the pound. Many red states in the USA would be awfully happy with the level of devolution found here.

    1. Scotland is ‘autonomous’ in the same way Quebec is: Making their own rules about everything and spending like mad and asking the rest of the country to pick up the shortfall.

      1. This. I keep hearing that the SNP took it’s inspiration from Quebec, the PQ as far as I’ve seen have no real desire to be independent, they just fuel resentment and then capitalize on cash thrown their way by Ottawa…

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  12. Did anyone else hear Russell Brand’s rant on the UK election results. I am paraphrasing but he said something along the lines that because the right won those on the left could no longer expect the government to do things for them so if we wanted to see something done then the people were going to have to band to gather to solve our own problems. It is actually a mature idea – don’t expect others to do things or provide things for you, do it yourself.

  13. Lying to pollsters is absolutely the best possible political action for most voters to take. As long as pollsters can project opinions/etc as accurate; then consultants/etc can use the well-proven techniques of emotional/psychological mass manipulation to herd voters around. The reason ‘shy’ only exists on the Tory side is because most left-leaning voters are quite content to be herded around even though the results of mass manipulation are as destructive to them as they are to anyone else.

    And only lying to pollsters will help. Telling them to eff off merely allows pollsters to sample someone else – and then generate accurate results with a larger sample. It is the widespread habit of ‘being honest’ that is used against us.

  14. Does anyone give a damn what people who drive on the wrong side of the road and never see a dentist do?

    Other than those wrong-driving bad teethers?

    Me thinks it’s a NOPE

  15. Keep the Brits at bay. They hate Country music.

    Save a horse, ride a cowboy!!!

  16. “This political outlook is an extraordinary “up yours” to the Conservatives in Westminster. ”

    Not at all, it was a way of letting Cameron know his majority was actually 56 seats larger than it appears as a matter of practicality, and thay Labour was even weaker than it appears. Moreover look at the recent referendum: in areas where the turn out was high, they voted NO. In areas the turn out was low, they voted YES. Just because Scots vote for more free stuff paid for by English taxpayers (i.e they vote SNP), they still vote against independence (because guess who pays for all the free stuff?) regardless of what the Brownshirt party faithful thugs of the SNP want.

    The SNP got 56 seats with 1.5 million votes. UKIP got 1 seat with 3.9 million votes.

    The SNP is not *nearly* as strong as its Parliamentary seats suggest, just as UKIP is not nearly as weak as its single seat suggests.

  17. Gimme a break lady, social democrat is bad enough and no diff from Labour these days. What these folks want isn’t independence, but more money.

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