The United Kingdom has gone through two great eras of political stasis in the past seventy years. The first era centered around the social-democratic postwar consensus instituted by Clement Attlee’s Labour government after the Second World War; no party dared to seriously undermine the foundations of that consensus for thirty years. The second era began with Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the postwar consensus, which was replaced with a form of neoliberalism that John Major cemented and Tony Blair left mostly unchallenged. But now a deeper threat to the British political model has formed, with the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This threat goes far beyond mere policy consensus, and instead challenges the norms of the British political system itself, a system wherein one party has traditionally held sole power in government between elections. The threat posed by the SNP and UKIP might bring the end of one-party governance and the advent of coalition governments. The implications are enormous.
A poll released last week by the firm Ipsos Mori made clear the extent to which the traditional political model is at threat in Scotland. The poll placed the SNP, Labour, Conservatives, and Lib Dems with 52 percent, 23 percent, 10 percent, and 6 percent of the vote respectively. In 2010, the percentages were 42 percent for Labour, 20 percent for the SNP, 19 percent for the Lib Dems, and 17 percent for the Conservatives. But the implications of this enormous shift away from Labour and the Lib Dems and to the SNP are effectively multiplied in terms of total seats won, for Westminster has a first-past-the-post voting system. The poll’s conclusions are shocking: Labour, currently with 41 Scottish seats, would be left with only four in 2015. The SNP would see a 48-seat gain to increase the size of its delegation to 54 seats. The Scottish Conservative delegation would be entirely wiped out, and the Lib Dems would send a sole member to Westminster. Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that over 80 percent of Scottish votes would go to avowedly left-wing parties, a situation vastly different from that in England.
I cannot overstate the momentous implications of the situation the poll predicts. Currently, only the Northern Irish delegation to Westminster contains a significant proportion of purely regionalist parties, a product of unique historical and political circumstances there. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party simply have no relevance in Britain itself. But, if the poll’s predictions come to fruition, over 90 percent of the Scottish delegation—54 members out of 59—would be SNP, a party that cannot exist outside of Scotland. This sort of regionalism is entirely unprecedented in the United Kingdom, especially in the numbers we might see it in 2015. The relevant comparison is not to any situation that has existed in Anglo-American history, but to the current situation in Spain, where the Convergence and Union alliance dominates Catalonia’s delegation to Madrid.
Labour has much to fear from the results of Ipsos Mori’s poll. Having fought against independence largely to protect its 41 Scottish seats, so vital to the formation of a Labour government in 2015, Labour now faces the horrifying prospect of losing nearly all of them at once—exactly the outcome which the No vote was meant to prevent. The anti-independence battle may well have been in vain. Now the same questions arise as did in the leadup to the referendum in September—will Labour ever form a majority at Westminster again? Will they go the way of the Liberals in the mid-twentieth century? Will the next twenty years see Conservative domination until the left reorganizes itself? I should hope the Labour leadership is discussing these questions feverishly, for the fate of their party depends on the answers.
But the implications go beyond the Labour, and indeed to the future of the survival of Westminster’s form of parliamentary democracy. The SNP is not the only party enjoying an incredible surge in popularity—the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by the brilliant Nigel Farage, poses just as much of a threat to Westminster’s future as does the SNP. It looks increasingly likely that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will win an outright majority in May 2015, and the rise of the SNP and UKIP only hardens that prediction. Before the 2010 elections, Britain had not seen a coalition government since the Second World War. Now the Conservatives rule in tenuous coalition with the Lib Dems—a coalition that has ruined the Lib Dems’ popularity—and a coalition looks likely, perhaps unavoidable. One coalition government might be dismissed as a temporary aberration; but two consecutive ones must be viewed as the signal of a more permanent shift. After all, at least four major national parties now exist—Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems, and UKIP. Add the regionalist SNP and the newly resurgent Greens, in some cases polling ahead of the Lib Dems, and the political landscape appears fractured in a way not seen since the left’s divisions in the 1980s. A hung parliament is the most probable result.
I cannot say with certainty which parties will form a coalition government next May. But surely the SNP’s possible fifty-four Scottish seats will prove a vital part of that government. Perhaps we will see a replay of the 1880s, when Charles Parnell’s Irish Nationalists held the power to decide governments, and flitted between the Conservatives and the Liberals, until finally William Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill failed in 1886. It seems entirely possible that the SNP will demand a new referendum as the price for its allegiance in a coalition—after all, a poll from The Times found that 52 percent of Scots now support independence, with two-third of the populace desiring another referendum within ten years. Or perhaps UKIP will fare better than expected and wait for conciliatory approaches from either the Conservatives or Labour. With its strong Euroscepticism, I find it more likely that UKIP would ally with the Conservatives than with Labour, and we would certainly see an in-out referendum on the EU by 2017.
Regardless of the coalition formed, if necessary, after the general election, its constitution will have an immense long-term impact on the future of the United Kingdom—on the vital, pressing questions of whether Scotland will stay with the United Kingdom and whether the United Kingdom will stay with Europe. And this sort of coalition politics will likely prove the new norm for Westminster, as it already is in Germany and Israel, among other countries. This will require a dramatic shift in mentality for the leaders of the dominant parties, and it may well necessitate the abolition of a first-past-the-post electoral system. We stand on the cusp of a new era in British politics, one in which the Conservative-Labour duality is in its waning days and the rise of a new populism, embodied on the left by the SNP and the right by UKIP, is evident. The consequences for the future remain unknown, but one thing is certain—affairs will not be run as they once were.