United Kingdom

How Britain's Election Divided the UK

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

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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.