“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” - Thomas Paine (1777)
Thursday 7 May 2015 is the date of the UK election. It is more than a British election in a number of ways. The fact that there is no adjective for “United Kingdom” – you are either British (i.e. English, Scottish or Welsh) or Irish – is a linguistic clue to a deeper force at work once again. Being of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland seems to be diminishing still further as a collective identity.
For the first time in over 300 years of union, Scotland might (just might) return only pro-independence nationalist representatives to the Westminster Parliament – something Wales or Northern Ireland have never done (nor for that matter the rest of Ireland before its independence). Even if the Scottish Nationalists fall slightly short of winning all 59 Scottish seats, it is likely to be a historic achievement. The 2015 election looks like being not just about the respective number of Members of Parliament (MPs) but also about the legitimacy of different parties to be part of a government given that none is likely to command an overall majority.
The arithmetic itself highlights what is wrong with the current British democratic system. It maps very poorly onto the new political allegiances that have emerged across the UK over recent years, partly due to our “first past the post” electoral system (in Britain) but also due to how concentrated some votes are. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – who despite the name are de facto English Nationalists – looks like gaining 10-14% of the overall UK vote, but perhaps only one or two seats in Parliament. Nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland will gain more MPs than UKIP but with a much smaller percentage of the overall UK vote (largely because they are concentrated in a few seats each) and it should be noted, that Sinn Fein (part of Irish Nationalist community) will not take their seats in Westminster anyhow.
But the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) will command perhaps only 4-5% of the overall UK electorate but might win 54 or more of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster. The 50% of Scotts who do not vote SNP tomorrow might not see many or any Scottish Labour, Liberal or Conservative MPs in Westminster. Apart from being a bit weird it is huge drain of talent from the Labour and Liberal Parties and from Westminster as a whole.
But I am not blaming Plaid Cymru or the Scottish Nationalists for this state of affairs – both have advocated for proportional representation. As commentator and satirist Armando Iannucci points out, it is the system itself that is rotten and for this we must blame the two parties that have dominated UK politics for too long: Labour and the Conservatives – for not reforming it. Whilst the de facto English nationalists – UKIP – also claim to be a reaction against the status quo – unlike the Irish, Welsh or Scottish nationalists they cannot credibly claim to be progressive with their anti-immigration and anti-European rhetoric. Intriguingly, if the UK does start to pull apart, even only through greater devolution, it will open political space for any progressive English nationalist party should they ever choose to be labeled such terms given hegemonic problems of being labeled “English”. I am not a nationalist – so I leave this bone for those that think nationalism is a legitimate dogma in the twenty first century.
What makes the May 7th result particularly interesting is that the two main parties are neck and neck at around 33% of the popular vote between them across the UK. In terms of seats, however, this favours the Conservatives in terms of numbers of MPs as their vote is concentrated in England (and particular the South of England). But even this advantage looks as if it will not give the Conservatives enough seats to rule on their own – another coalition will be essential but their partners of the past five years, the Liberal Democrats, will be the biggest losers on May 7th in loss of vote – as were the Liberals in Germany after their first coalition with Chancellor Merkel. There might not be enough Liberal Democrat MPs in the new Parliament to give the Conservatives what they need.
What the colour combination of the next UK coalition will look like is a matter for those who like to set bets and gamble. Unlike Germany, a Red-Blue (Social Democrat – Conservative) “grand coalition” is impossible in UK terms. It happened unofficially last year in Scotland during the referendum on independence and many Scottish voters still resent it. As much as nationalism is emerging as a powerful force in UK politics, it does not trump the much deeper class divide anywhere with the possible exception of Northern Ireland. British politics remains tribal on class grounds, much less so than it was, but the two main parties still have their core votes determined more by genetics than manifestos. What is truly radical about what is happening in Scotland, is that this might be shifting to a new model (albeit an independent Scotland could not be governed by a spirit of nationalism forever and would revert to left-right divisions).
What we will see in the next few days is a hint of a new style of politics in the UK – and one in which legitimacy places an increasing role. Not all the permutations for building a 326 MP coalition in the Westminster are easily legitimate in representative terms – given the imbalances I have outlined above. Until the voting system is reformed (replaced by proportional representation) and we move to a more permanent multi-party system, Westminster will feel its social licence draining away. Its political licence might be cobbled together for another five years, it might have legal licence in constitutional terms, but the social license – the result of the social contract between the peoples of the United Kingdom and their representatives in Westminster is increasingly badly damaged and must be repaired before democracy can once again thrive on these isles west of France.
To end with the words of a British man, in fact an Englishman who perhaps gave the world more in democratic ideas than just about any other. The democracies of France and the USA both owe much to Thomas Paine, but he was never much liked by the elite back at home – in fact he was wanted for sedition: to be hanged for his dangerous thinking. But Paine reminds us in his quote from 1777 (that starts this commentary) that democracy itself is a lot of hard work.