Monday, May 11, 2015

BRITAIN

There's an inevitable tendency to regard elections as immutable; a "decision of the people's will"; something that will "change everything".

Maybe that's true.

Outside No 10 for another 5 years
Courtesy The Telegraph

This piece for the Strategist considered the two significant ways in which the UK has changed . . .





A NEW BRITAIN


Every now and then a political earthquake shakes the land; a seismic event that completely alters the frame of reference for years to come. Last week’s victory by British Conservative leader David Cameron is one such occasion.

Before the vote nobody, not even the most dyed-in-the-wool Tory, had dared hope for such a result. Opinion polls had shown the government and opposition level pegging for weeks. Political pundits were predicting either a hung parliament or narrow majority for either side. And then, minutes after the last vote was cast, an exit poll was released. Taken as voters were leaving the ballot-booths it insisted a huge, sudden switch back to the conservatives would sweep the party to victory.

Conservatives topped up their champagne. Labour supporters grimly gritted their teeth.

Opposition leader Ed Miliband’s campaign team closeted themselves in his house – the one (as TV viewers were reminded) “without a second kitchen”. The comment referred to an earlier photo spread: the opposition leader had been shown relaxing with his wife in an immaculate and sparkling kitchen. It was, in fact, a bit too spotless. It turned out the room was a faux-kitchen, constructed to look good and present an image of authenticity.

Voters had been amazed. Labour attempted to dismiss the event as an example of the challenger’s quirkiness – after all, he’d been a political nerd since childhood. But questions lingered. This seemed to be yet another indication the opposition leader wasn’t quite ‘normal’. The challenger didn’t seem to speak the voter’s language. On Thursday it turned out voters had decided he, too, was a pseud, an impersonation and failed to warm to him. Now the party’s been consigned to wander in the wilderness for another five years.

What does this mean?

Half a decade is a long time. When the next election takes place the Conservatives will have ruled the country for ten years: long enough to alter the very fabric of society. Place the triumph in context.

In the ’80’s and ’90’s, Margaret Thatcher killed off the welfare state. When Tony Blair resurrected Labour he did so by insisting his party would govern from the centre. Although some of Thatcher’s most egregious reforms were rolled back, most weren’t. When Gordon Brown finally wrenched office from his erstwhile leader only to inherit the financial crisis. He floundered helplessly until the voters dispatched him in 2010. Since then Cameron presided over a stable government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Voters decided they liked him.

At this election they didn’t just speak; they shouted. Emphatically. The green fields of England have turned conservative blue.

Unanimity hasn’t spread across the land although the Tories now have a decisive majority and will be able to implement their agenda.  Two other, equally striking, clear trends have become apparent. These can be summarised in two words: identity and polarisation.

Most obvious is the demand for local autonomy. Scottish voters’ rejected Westminster and the Union. There are 650 seats in the UK Parliament and the Scottish National Party now holds 56 of the 60 north of the River Tweed, most taken from Labour. The only question is how much devolution will take place. Nevertheless, (and this caveat is critical) it’s the Conservatives who will frame the negotiations for a new constitutional arrangement.

Yet the Scottish question will remain an even worse lingering sore for Labour. Those demanding independence wrested most of their gains not from the Tories, but the opposition. If Labour is to remain viable it will need to discover a way to allow its supporters to retain multiple identities: voters are no longer prepared to subsume themselves within a single party ‘brand’. They want choice.

The Scots achieved their result with concerted local campaigning. In England, the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP (which deplores London’s close relationship with Brussels and the European Union) may have only won two seats, yet it received a huge swing. In many electorates it’s become the second largest party. Northern Ireland and Wales will also send their own representatives to Westminster. The time has arrived for a new model of federation for the nations. Politicians will need to discover a new way of engaging with this emerging local identity; a new vocabulary that can accommodate this desire for autonomy.

Most seriously this has implications for Europe. Cameron is pledged to a referendum on remaining in the EU. This threatens to paralyse the new government as an international player. Westminster will restrict the role it plays on the global stage for internal domestic political purposes. Other nations will emerge to occupy this space as Britain withdraws.

The second critical issue to emerge from the election is ideological. Under Cameron the conservative project will now take on as radical an edge as the one it developed under Thatcher. Welfare is to be slashed; workers rewarded. The wealthy will continue getting richer. The past term of government saw education spending slashed by a third - the coming years will witness an even greater push towards ripping apart the welfare state, one which the opposition will be powerless to oppose. Paul Keating said when you change the government you change the country. The UK’s done that in spades.

What for the Conservatives means greater emphasis on the individual for Labour is the decline of the community. A new ideological battle is about to be joined; the only question is how far Cameron will push for change.



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