Britain’s election has left the country’s politics in a chaotic, confused mess. With the situation in such flux, there’s a decent chance that much of what I might write now (Sunday afternoon) will be obsolete by the time that you read it. So here instead are the answers to nine questions that should be relevant for some time. Well, a few days, anyway.
HOW DID THE VOTE GO?
To use an understatement: inconclusively. The House of Commons now has 650 MPs, so for one party to secure a majority, it needs to win 326 seats (in practice one or two fewer, but let’s not worry about that). For the first time since 1974, no one party has won that absolute majority. Parliament is “hung.” So far, the Conservatives have won 306 seats in the 2010 election and are forecast to win another after a special vote later this month, but it still won’t be enough. Labour came in second, with 258, and the Liberal Democrats third, with 57. With the exception of the eight sturdy Ulstermen of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, the remaining 28 seats (located in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and, in the case of Brighton — where a Green was elected — outer space) were mainly won by Celtic nationalists, few of whom have any time for the Tories. David William Donald Cameron has two Scottish names, but only one Tory MP in Scotland.
DID THE CONSERVATIVES BLOW IT?
Yes, if by less than some would claim. Thirteen years of Labour misrule capped by an economic and fiscal crisis ought to have paved the way for a solid Conservative victory. For most of 2008 and 2009, the opinion polls signaled that the Tories were set for an overall majority. Then something changed. In part this was the usual reversion of voters to their traditional voting habits in the run-up to a general election. And in part it was the fallout from a parliamentary expenses scandal that left the electorate disgusted by politicians of both the main parties. But there was something else. Looking at the support for David Cameron, it was striking how little enthusiasm for him there really was, even amongst the Tory faithful. To many voters, he came across as likable enough, even if he had a touch too much of the salesman about him, but that was it. In particular, he did not appear to be for anything worth getting excited about. I’ll go into the reasons for that in the answer to the next question, but let’s just note for now that in 2010 being Not-Labour was not quite enough.
But the word there is “quite.” Critics of David Cameron need to remember how far his party has come since the last election, in 2005, its third consecutive humiliating defeat. This time round, the Tories increased their tally of votes by 2 million, the same number by which their score exceeded Labour’s. They won more new seats than at any election since 1931, and they secured almost as big a swing against Labour as did Mrs. Thatcher in her legendary 1979 triumph. With 97 additional seats in the bag, the parliamentary party is roughly 50 percent larger than it was a week ago.
At the same time, the Conservative share of the popular vote only increased from a little over 32 percent to 36.1 percent. Financial crisis, broken borders, rising social disorder, and the peculiarities of that strange Gordon Brown ought to have been worth more than that.
WHAT DID THEY DO WRONG?
David Cameron took over a Conservative party that was, to put it bluntly, unelectable. Rightly or wrongly (in my view, wrongly) it was seen by many as the “nasty” party, not least thanks to the efforts and metropolitan prejudices of a media elite that is far more influential in Britain than are its counterparts in the United States. To tackle this, Cameron had to soften media hostility to a degree sufficient to enable his party to get its message out. He succeeded, but it meant dragging the Conservatives in an ostentatiously (to use the bleak newspeak) “inclusive” direction, a direction that (to be fair) at least partly reflected contemporary political attitudes amongst the wider population. Britain is no longer the Britain that elected Mrs. Thatcher.
Unfortunately, Cameron failed to realize he won the argument years ago. He had “decontaminated the brand,” and yet he went into the election still seemingly apologetic for it. He campaigned in 2010 as if it were 2007, afraid or unwilling to play those traditional Conservative tunes that — whatever they may say in Notting Hill — are still capable of pulling in the crowds. Instead, Cameron made clear that his faith in Al Gore’s gospel was undimmed by Climategate. He could barely bring himself to mention immigration, and his big vision was of a “Big Society” (I have no idea). Meanwhile, sending his most senior Europhile on a secret mission to Brussels added insult to the injuries of the Tories’ restless Euroskeptic core. In that context, it’s worth noting that Cameron’s lead at the polls started to decline almost immediately after he reneged late last year on a “cast iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon treaty. This wasn’t an altogether unreasonable decision (the treaty had since come into effect, and would be extremely difficult to unscramble), but politically it was a serious mistake.
Perhaps this was simple miscalculation, the error of an out-of-touch individual surrounded by a small, like-minded clique. Perhaps. But there was another possibility: Had Cameron drunk too much of his own Kool-Aid? For the Tory leader to have changed his party’s course out of cynical political calculation is understandable; for him actually to believe the more obviously idiotic “progressive” nonsense he has been spouting would be unforgivable.
Either way, the base was unimpressed. In the most telling sign of this, over 900,000 people (roughly 3 percent of the popular vote, and an increase of 50 percent over 2005) voted for the euroskeptic UKIP, Britain’s fourth-largest party. To quote blogger Archbishop Cranmer, UKIP is a “lost tribe” of conservatism, made up of natural Tories whose politics are, to quote another blogger, the entertaining Guido Fawkes, those of the Conservative party “after a few gin and tonics.” Their votes may have cost the Tories as many as 20 seats, and thus a parliamentary majority. More than a few of those UKIP supporters might have returned to the Cameron fold had he been prepared to give them some sort of sign that he was, you know, just a little bit like them. Instead, he did the opposite.
IS THERE A LESSON FOR U.S. CONSERVATIVES?
When it comes to policy specifics, not so much. The U.K. is not the U.S. Its politics are very different (to start with, the British mainstream tends more to the center-left than is often understood over here). The challenge faced by David Cameron was very different from that now confronting the GOP. If there is one thing, perhaps, that Republicans could learn, it is this. Neither RINOs, nor the “reformers” of various hues, nor the various keepers of the conservative flame should drink too much of their different varieties of Kool-Aid. They should deal with the electorate as it is, not as they would like — or believe — it to be.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CLEGG?
Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, shot to prominence after a strong showing in the first televised party leaders’ debate. According to one opinion poll, “nice Nick” had become the most popular politician since Winston Churchill. He was articulate, a fresh face, and, briefly, “none of the above.” Unfortunately for Clegg, he was also a Liberal Democrat, and he was unable to carry his reliably unsuccessful party along on his coattails. The Liberal Democrats ended up losing a net five seats. Their 23 percent of the vote, slightly more than in 2005, was well below the high 20s (and more) recorded in the giddy days of early Cleggmania.
Despite that, the hung Parliament has left Nick Clegg in the game, busy being wooed by David Cameron and shouted at by Gordon Brown (it’s a tough-love thing).
HOW BAD ARE THE LIB-DEMS?
Pretty bad. The Liberal Democrats are usually described as left-of-center, and so they are, but that’s not the end of it. Nine decades out of office will leave any party looking a tad strange, and Clegg’s crew has proved no exception. Their ideology is a ragbag of policies, some good, some bad, some plain loopy, some well-intentioned, some not, the flotsam and jetsam of nearly a century of passing fads, prejudices, and dreams untouched by the realities of government. What does unite this somewhat fractious party, however, is a belief in electoral reform.
British general elections operate on a strict “first past the post” basis. The candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins. Historically, this simplest of systems has been a force for political stability, generally producing governments with a majority large enough to govern by themselves for the whole of their term. Thus, Tony Blair’s Labour party won 55 percent of the parliamentary seats in 2005 with only 35 percent of the national vote. This extreme, but not entirely untypical result was just the latest in a series bound to raise questions of fairness, questions that have been asked with mounting insistence in recent decades. The old system worked well enough when the two major parties carved up most of the vote between them, but in the multiparty Britain that has been evolving since the 1970s, it has come to look increasingly rough-hewn. Crucially, first past the post squeezes a third party with appeal across much of Britain, but lacking the regional redoubt enjoyed, say, by the Scottish Nationalists. In short, it squeezes the Liberal Democrats. With 23 percent of the vote in 2010, they only won 9 percent of the seats. That’s why they are yet again calling for some move towards proportional representation as the price for their support. Labour is now desperate enough to make a move in that direction. For the Tories, it’s not so easy. Not only are there good practical arguments for preserving the current system, but also, a change to proportional representation would almost certainly mean that the Right would never rule Britain on its own again.
HAS HER MAJESTY BEEN MINDING THE STORE?
No, the constitutional position is that Gordon Brown continues to serve as prime minister (basically as a caretaker) until a replacement is found. It would take a vote of the newly elected House of Commons to force his government out of office, but Parliament is not due to sit until May 18.
AND THAT DEBT BUSINESS?
The renewed spasm of global financial uncertainty could hardly have come at a worse time. With a public-sector deficit at a Greek 12 percent of GDP, the United Kingdom is highly vulnerable to market panic. International investors have waited for months to see what steps Britain would take to reduce its deficit and when. Neither the Liberal Democrats, nor Labour, nor the Conservatives have come up with a convincing plan, but many market players seem to have taken the view that such discretion was inevitable in a closely fought electoral contest. They appeared to have been reassured by the thought that the Tories would prevail and that somehow “something” would be done. That comforting illusion has now been dispelled. However you parse the election results, there was no majority for spending cuts on the scale that will be needed, and with another election almost certainly in the offing who now will be prepared to suggest them?
Hang onto your hats.
– Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.