‐ Raúl Castro, after meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican, said he might very well “go back to the Church.” That will be one long confession.
‐ Jeb Bush got tripped up on a question about Iraq. Asked by Megyn Kelly if he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq given what we know now, Bush said absolutely, and Hillary Clinton would have as well. The political and media world promptly crashed down around his head for his purportedly pigheaded, tone-deaf backing of the war. As Bush explained afterwards, he misinterpreted the question and gave an answer based on what we knew in 2003 (when, indeed, many prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, voted to authorize the war). Bush dismissed the question Kelly had really asked as a hypothetical. This is all a bit of a tangle, but clearly, if we had known with certainty in 2003 that Saddam wasn’t close to having functional weapons of mass destruction, we never would have invaded. The world doesn’t run on counterfactuals, though (if we knew then what we know today, we also would have implemented the surge years earlier and never would have pulled out of Iraq entirely). Perhaps Governor Bush should say that the next time he gets this question — because he can be sure there will be a next time.
‐ The racial politics of American cities typically pits minorities against the Man — City Hall, or the police department, or both. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the Man is usually Democratic Man. In the last century, Baltimore has had two Republican mayors. The second one left office 48 years ago. It is the closest thing to a one-party city north of Havana. Sometimes the one party shows inklings of self-reform, though not for long. In 2000, Mayor Martin O’Malley, now running for president, brought in Ed Norris, a veteran of the NYPD, to tackle crime. Norris made some gains but left in disgust after two years because of pressure to massage statistics. Now we have Freddie Gray. There will always be tension, because race hustlers live to enflame it, because even good police departments must arrest people and sometimes make mistakes — and because some cops are genuinely bad. But when has Baltimore enjoyed the sort of progress made by a Giuliani or a Bloomberg in New York? Not under the old management, evidently.
‐ Freddie Gray’s death in the custody of Baltimore police raises harrowing questions, but the search for truth is ill served by an ambitious prosecutor of questionable competence. Although investigators were not close to completing their probe, state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby filed charges that appear thin and internally inconsistent, combining involuntary manslaughter, i.e., accidental homicide, with “depraved heart” murder, an overreach that requires proving reckless indifference to life. She also alleges false imprisonment based on the claim that the switchblade police found on Gray was legal to possess. This may well be wrong under municipal law; worse, it presumes that cops should be prosecuted when good-faith arrests are second-guessed by prosecutors or courts. Meanwhile, new U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch announced another administration investigation into whether Baltimore police engage in a “pattern or practice” of violating civil rights, even though the White House praised the city’s department as a model just two months ago. Police misconduct is not cured by prosecutorial misconduct.
‐ The Senate passed a bill that would require President Obama to submit the text of a deal with Iran to Congress, where it could be rejected with a two-thirds vote. Some Senate Republicans, including Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, had hoped to strengthen the bill significantly by offering amendments that would have required a deal to include Iranian recognition of Israel or disclosure of the country’s past nuclear work. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell rejected an attempt by Cotton to force a vote on those amendments, in part because Democrats threatened to make considering them an impractically long endeavor. An active debate about the Iran bill would have been good, but might have resulted in no legislative constraints at all on the president’s ability to reach a deal and ease sanctions. In any case, this was just one skirmish in a larger battle that will probably take the next election to resolve.
‐ Jade Helm 15 is a military exercise scheduled to take place in seven southwestern states this summer. But to hear some Texans, it’s the return of Santa Anna (the feds are coming to take everyone’s guns, etc.). These fears have not been sufficiently dismissed by certain conservative Texans. Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise. Senator Ted Cruz said he understands “the reason for concern and uncertainty because the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration.” Gentlemen, this will not do. If constituents have crackpot fears, they should be told to go home and sleep it off. Period.
‐ “Do you have a favorite Cuban food?” Mark Halperin asked Cruz on an online Bloomberg show in April. “Do you like Cuban music?” Several more questions on that theme followed. Halperin asked them rat-a-tat; Cruz won points for treating them lightly and playing along. In his apparent effort to embarrass the Republican presidential candidate by challenging him to prove the authenticity of his Hispanic identity, Halperin embarrassed only himself. He apologized after the interview he conducted was excoriated by a columnist in the San Jose Mercury News and then roundly mocked on the Internet and social media. Even the website ThinkProgress, no friend to conservatives, described Halperin’s interrogation of Cruz as “cringe-worthy” and “racist.” More pressing than whether Cruz is Hispanic enough is whether journalists are professional enough to cover him.
‐ And as with one voice, the American media cried: “But she was asking for it!” Pamela Geller, provocatrix, put out the call: We are holding a Mohammed-cartoon contest to highlight Islamic radicalism. Islamic radicals put out the call, too: Geller and the cartoonists must be massacred. Two would-be terrorists showed up at Geller’s event in Garland, Texas, with semiautomatic rifles and body armor, intent on mass murder; a traffic cop with a standard-issue service sidearm killed them both. Naturally, for a certain kind of liberal, this was all Geller’s fault: Juan Williams likened her to a “pyromaniac,” while CAIR, the faux civil-rights outfit, complained that she sought to provoke “mutual hostility and mistrust.” Geller sought to bring attention to the fact that Islamic radicals are in the habit of murdering cartoonists, their crosshairs having landed on everybody from Jyllands-Posten to Charlie Hebdo. You can’t say her point has been disproved.
‐ PEN American Center presented its Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo at its annual gala. It’s hard to imagine a worthier recipient: Most of the magazine’s contributors were murdered by Islamists in January, yet it marches on. The award was tainted, however, by a craven protest, led by six PEN members — Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi — and joined by almost 140 others (e.g., Joyce Carol Oates). They accused PEN of “valorizing . . . anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments.” Some Charlie Hebdo supporters responded by pointing out that it most often attacks the National Front or the Catholic Church. But this misses the point. All expression in the Western world — left, center, right — is threatened by Dark Age trolls wielding a murderer’s veto. They are abetted by self-hating multiculturalists, cowed by their rage: Call it the boot-licker’s veto. All honor to PEN, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, for drawing the right conclusions.
‐ Hillary Clinton, who said in 2003 that she was “adamantly against illegal immigrants,” now sees political advantage in taking the leftmost position possible. Almost all the Republican presidential candidates have said that they are open to providing legal status to many illegal immigrants, at least after it is clear that we have the capacity and will to enforce the laws going forward. Clinton criticized those Republicans: Legal status is “second class,” and only citizenship will do. She urged that we welcome back some of the illegal immigrants we have already deported. And she said that if Congress did not cooperate with her immigration ideas during her presidency, she would go farther than Obama in setting policy herself. Never mind that Obama is already stretching the law, as a federal judge has concluded (and as Obama himself used to say). The upshot of Clinton’s remarks for her Republican rivals is threefold: They have to be careful not to appear anti-Hispanic, they cannot outbid the Democrats on amnesty, and the Democrats’ unreasonableness may give them an opening with the public at large. All of which those candidates should have already known.
‐ Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee — to list them in order of increasing political experience — entered the presidential race. Only Huckabee is given any chance of winni7ng the Republican nomination, and that a slim one. In 2008, he won strong pluralities of Evangelical primary voters, which was enough to win him some state contests. But he has no plausible path to the nomination unless he appeals to other types of Republicans. He appears to believe that attacking trade and defending entitlements will broaden his appeal; we hope that he quickly finds that he has to try something else. Carson has said that he will try to avoid sentences that put the present-day United States in close proximity to Nazi Germany and Obamacare to slavery. However hard he tries, he should try harder. Carson has had a very impressive career in medicine and Fiorina a debatably impressive one in business; both will have to dispel the impression that they are merely trying to add lines to their résumés.
‐ Senate Democrats blocked a vote on “trade-promotion authority,” a priority of President Obama’s. The bill would have committed Congress to an up-or-down vote on trade pacts, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is close to being finalized. The bill is necessary because if Congress can amend trade deals, other countries will be less likely to make them in the first place. The vote showed how hostile to trade Democrats have become, and how weak Obama is within his party. And how unpersuasive, as well: His argument to balking Democrats was that they should trust him to send them only worthwhile deals. Like the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, Obama has freed trade only when finishing deals mostly negotiated by Republican predecessors, and has been unable to initiate any liberalization of his own because of opposition from his party. Clinton, too, was unable to get House Democrats to give him trade-promotion authority, and it lapsed until there was a Republican administration and Congress. The best hope for a trade deal may be that this history repeats itself.
Equality vs. Recovery
Forty years ago, the economist Arthur Okun wrote a seminal book with a self-explanatory title: Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff. America, Okun noted, has a “system of rewards and penalties that is intended to encourage effort and channel it into socially productive activity. . . . But that pursuit of efficiency necessarily creates inequalities.”
Okun’s tradeoff seems to be forgotten by many on the left, who advocate expanded government spending at every turn and seem to blame austerity for every data hiccup. Behind this charge lurks a tricky scientific problem: how to quantify the tradeoff. We cannot directly observe whether a society would have been richer had it been less devoted to egalitarian policies.
What is needed is some kind of controlled experiment, and the nearby chart suggests a simple one. When the financial crisis began, countries varied tremendously in the extent to which they redistributed income. Some, such as Ireland and Sweden, redistributed a lot; others, such as the U.S. and Switzerland, not so much. Now, seven years later, some countries have recovered smartly. Others have not. If we go back and sort countries by how much they redistributed before the crisis, how does the growth experience compare?
From the World Bank, we compiled data on the growth rate of per capita national income, adjusted to reflect variation in local price levels and exchange rates. We matched these numbers with data on inequality from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database maintained by Professor Frederick Solt of the University of Iowa.
That database uses a standard measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient. A Gini coefficient value of 100 would correspond to one individual earning 100 percent of a country’s income, and a Gini coefficient value of 0 would correspond to a perfectly even distribution of income.
To measure how much a country redistributes, we looked at how much government policy changes that coefficient. The more taxes and transfers from the government reduce the coefficient, the more redistributive that government is.
The chart examines the recent experience of national economies in the wake of the financial crisis for the 47 countries for which there were sufficient Gini-coefficient data. The vertical axis plots how much redistribution there was in each country in 2008. The horizontal axis plots the rate of per capita national-income growth that each country averaged during the four years between 2008 and 2012. In some sense, then, the chart asks the question, “To what extent does variation in the size of the welfare state in 2008 explain variation in how economies recovered from the crisis between 2008 and 2012?”
As one can see in the chart, which contains the raw data and a highly statistically significant regression line through the data points, the data show a clear pattern: The heavy redistributors have done much worse. Indeed, the statistical relationship suggests that moving a nation’s redistributive apparatus from that of the typical country in the sample to that of the U.S. would have increased the expected growth rate of per capita national income over this period by a full percentage point.
Today’s Left, unlike Arthur Okun, seems to live in a world where trade-offs and incentives no longer matter. In the next presidential election Democrats are likely to claim that increasing redistribution in the U.S. is the key to economic growth. This chart should give them pause.
‐ Important parts of the Patriot Act are up for congressional reauthorization, including the provision that gave rise to the NSA’s controversial “metadata” program (section 215). A federal appeals court has invalidated this program, which collects phone records — not the content of communications, but data showing which subscriber numbers were in contact, when, and for how long — in bulk. The three-judge panel ruled that the Patriot Act provision did not authorize the program. The provision requires that the records collected be “relevant” to a terrorism investigation, and the government concedes that only a statistically negligible quantum of the records gathered involve terrorist communications. It argues, nonetheless, that a complete set of data is necessary to detect patterns of terrorist communication. The program involves minimal privacy intrusion, but given the controversy, the government must do a better job of explaining the need for it. Ideally, the 215 program will be renewed in a way that more clearly authorizes its current work. Disarming the intelligence community, on the other hand, would make us no freer and a little less safe.
‐ House Republicans have revived a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, a measure that polls show a strong majority of Americans support. As we went to press, leadership planned to put the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to a vote on the second anniversary of abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s conviction for murdering infants born alive. The bill had stalled in January after a dispiriting dispute among Republicans about a reporting requirement in its rape-exception provision. The new version represents a compromise on that point with which pro-life activists are generally satisfied. It now requires that women seeking late-term abortions after being raped receive outside counseling or medical treatment before undergoing an abortion, and that any rapes of minors be reported to authorities. It also would require that a second physician attend the procedure to ensure that medical assistance be given to any baby born alive in a botched abortion. Should the bill reach President Obama’s desk for his inevitable veto, he will have another chance to explain his support for infanticide.
‐ “I’m hearing from a lot of customers, ‘I voted for that, and I didn’t realize it would affect you.’” So says Brian Hibbs, owner and operator of Comix Experience, an iconic San Francisco comic-book and graphic-novel shop, of the city’s new minimum-wage law. San Francisco’s Proposition J, which 77 percent of voters approved in November, will incrementally raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 by 2018; the first of four installments went into effect on May 1. “Despite being a progressive living in San Francisco, I do believe in capitalism,” says Hibbs. The new minimum wage threatens to force hundreds of shops out of business and thousands of employees out of their jobs. Hibbs has turned a profit and kept his employees well compensated for a quarter century simply by dint of a passion and acumen for his business. Continuing to do either in San Francisco’s zealously progressive economy does not require superhuman strength, but it might be nigh heroic nonetheless.
‐ “Puerto Rican citizens — U.S. citizens — ought to have the right to determine whether they want to be a state,” Jeb Bush said recently. They already have such a right: The island has voted against statehood three times, and approved the idea once only narrowly, in a convoluted symbolic referendum in 2012. When Alaska and Hawaii joined the union, they voted to do so by margins of six-to-one or better. Another referendum for Puerto Rico doesn’t seem necessary, but if it happens, it should require supermajority approval — we don’t want ambivalent states. Bush also said he liked the idea on the merits, and he’s wrong there, too: Applying policies meant for the mainland, such as the federal minimum wage, has been disastrous for Puerto Rico. Its ailing economy needs reforms, not statehood.
‐ After failing to pass its fitness test, a 33-year-old woman was nonetheless hired by the Fire Department of New York, which has assigned her to Engine 259 in Sunnyside, Queens. “Fitness has to be a part of your life,” the president of the firefighters’ union reminded the 304 graduates at the Fire Academy’s commencement ceremony in May. Some heard his remarks as veiled criticism of the department’s controversial decision. “A lot of the girls in the field are [upset] because they feel like they’re getting lumped into the same category of a female getting special treatment and not meeting the same standards as the males,” an insider told the New York Post, which reported that the FDNY was under pressure from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to hire more women. In general, hiring policies should be as blind to the sex of the job applicant as fire is.
‐ This story has a happy, or happyish, ending, but it was ugly for a while. Sister Diana Momeka, a leader of Christians in Iraq, was scheduled to come to the United States to meet with congressmen and others. She wanted to tell them about ISIS — what it was doing to her community in particular. Other religious leaders were to come as well, including a representative of the Turkmen Shiites. All of them were granted visas — except for Sister Diana. The State Department said it could not be sure that she would return to Iraq rather than stay in the United States. Sister Diana’s allies in America were incensed at this treatment, and spoke out for her. Prominent among them was Nina Shea, the human-rights lawyer at the Hudson Institute, who wrote about the issue for National Review’s website. After this hue and cry, the State Department reversed its decision, granting Sister Diana her visa. She will return to Iraq and her community. But just for the record: Our country — our president — is amnestying millions of illegal aliens who came from Mexico and Central America. Would it be so bad to accept some Iraqi Christians, whom monsters are promising to rape and murder?
‐ Lest you think Democrats are the Empire State’s only crooks — former assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D.) is under indictment for federal corruption, while current speaker Carl Heastie (D.) has been accused of profiting from his mother’s embezzlements — Dean Skelos (R.) resigned as senate majority leader after being indicted on corruption charges of his own. (He allegedly pressured companies to make payments to an environmental firm that retained his son Adam as a consultant.) The closest thing the state has to a two-party system is its very own Inspector Javert, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara, long may he prosecute. Honesty in government is a necessity. But what New York also needs is a break from pig-trough statism, the soil in which corruption so readily grows. The local GOP is as unwilling to provide the second as it is unable to offer the first.
‐ On May 8 (May 9, Moscow time) 70 years ago, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to its triumphant enemies. As time winnows the survivors, commemorations of V-E Day pass from living memory to history. But history itself is the plaything of politics. Russia marked the occasion with a display of tanks and modern military might, as if Stalin’s death struggle with his former ally were being repeated today in Putin’s thuggish intervention in Ukraine. The crushing of Hitler and Nazism ended a deadly and dynamic regime; it lifted a threat from the United States and Britain and a curse from Western Europe. For Central and Eastern Europe it meant trading one curse for another. Let us give (measured) thanks.
‐ It’s embarrassing to throw a party when the guests don’t come. That’s President Obama’s plight at Camp David. He may have bent in obeisance to the former king of Saudi Arabia, but the present king, Salman, is not even going to turn up and shake hands. Nor are the rulers of Bahrain and Oman. Politeness, the care not to give offense, is one of the keys to Arab culture. These rulers and their officials make sure to say there is zero tension and no disappointment in their relationship with the American president. Yet the snub is obvious. These are Sunnis who have looked to the United States for protection, only to see that it is empowering Shiite Iran. Absence is their way of saying that Obama has lost the Sunnis.
‐ Running the United States out of Yemen and looking to emerge winners in the final stage of the long-drawn-out nuclear negotiations, Tehran needs to test the point when the United States might say no and mean it. In a move of typical craftiness, its rulers engineered a dispute with Maersk, a huge shipping company that just happens to provide transport services to the U.S. military. It also just happens that the major proportion of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to Asia is shipped via the Straits of Hormuz. Claiming that the Maersk Tigris was trespassing in Iranian territorial waters in these straits, naval units of the Revolutionary Guards fired shots across her bow and escorted her in to Bandar Abbas. None of the crew was American and the ship was carrying no arms, but the crew was held for a week “under armed guard,” as their captain put it once they had been released. Since American forces did nothing except “monitor” this piracy on the high seas, Tehran is likely to feel quite free to act as it pleases.
‐ Conservative victory is the significant major drama of the British general election, and the defeat of George Galloway in the constituency of Bradford West is the significant minor drama. In and out of Parliament, he’s been the very model of a modern mindless agitator. Thrown out of the Labour party for saying to a surprised Saddam Hussein, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability,” he started his own party. Respect, this startlingly misnamed party, has been a mouthpiece for Muslim grievance. Bradford West has a high proportion of Muslims, and Galloway played to what he thought their prejudices were. For him, President Bashar Assad of Syria is “a fortress of the remaining dignity of the Arabs,” and he declared his constituency “an Israel-free zone.” His opponent, Naz Shah, has Pakistani origins, and found herself in the strange position of being attacked as an indifferent Muslim by someone who wasn’t a Muslim at all. A dead crow was laid on her doorstep. Ben Judah, a Jewish reporter, was roughed up. In the face of unprecedented nastiness, the Muslim voters rose to the occasion. Naz Shah’s majority is 11,420.
‐ On its website, the Australian Broadcasting Company published an article headed “Is Having a Loving Family an Unfair Advantage?” Interviewed was a philosopher named Adam Swift (not to be confused with Adam Smith, or Jonathan Swift). He said, “One way philosophers might think about solving the social-justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society, then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.” While families cannot be abolished, they unlevel the playing field in all kinds of ways. Take the issue of bedtime stories: Children whose parents read to them are better off than children whose parents don’t. So, should reading at bedtime be disallowed? No, says Swift, he would not go that far — though parents who read to their children should think occasionally about how they are “unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children.” Typical liberal half-measures.
‐ The NFL suspended the New England Patriots’ all-star quarterback, Tom Brady, for four games after an independent investigation found that it was “more probable than not” that he was “at least generally aware” that Patriots staff had tampered with game balls in their AFC championship matchup against the Indianapolis Colts — the scandal known as “DeflateGate.” In addition to Brady’s suspension, the Pats will lose a 2016 first-round draft pick and a 2017 fourth-round pick, and will have to pay a $1 million fine. In its letter of suspension, the league wrote: “Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question.” In other words, the NFL demands equality before the law. The Justice Department could learn a thing or two here.
‐ Andre Saraiva, a renowned graffiti artist, recently tagged a boulder in Joshua National Park in the desert of southeastern California. Nature lovers protested. Saraiva answered that the boulder fell outside the boundaries of the park, but critics went to Google Maps and proved him wrong. An editor of the men’s fashion magazine L’Officiel Hommes, Saraiva owns nightclubs in Paris and New York and evidently does not share the tastes and values of hikers, conservationists, and those who go to national parks for nature that has not been too defaced by the busyness of human beings, whose impulse to stamp their ego on everything is natural, in its way, but not always lovely.
‐ Highways bring to mind Route 66 and a roadster with the top down, not smog and sidewalk vendors. But under MAP-21, the federal transportation bill passed through Congress and signed by President Obama in 2012, where Broadway and Seventh Avenue intersect is part of the National Highway System, as well as subject to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which prohibits billboards over 1,200 square feet within 660 feet of a highway. That’s a big problem, since that intersection happens to be Times Square: Media reports said the federal Department of Transportation was ordering New York City to take down Times Square’s illegal billboards. Bright lights, big city no more? Perhaps not; the federal DOT says it’s negotiating with city officials to work out an exclusion for Times Square, possibly by removing its NHS designation. If only Obama’s EPA and Justice Department could be so reasonable.
‐ Businessman Nick Loeb and actress Sofia Vergara created and froze two embryos while they were dating, then broke up. Now he wants to be able to raise them as daughters, while she wants them to stay frozen. The courts will probably side with her. In part that’s because they made a legal agreement that arguably allows the embryos to be implanted in a womb only on the consent of both of them. It’s also because courts dealing with embryos have generally found that not being made a parent against one’s will is the greatest interest at stake, and should trump everything else. What the courts should do, instead, is rule as they would in custody disputes, in the best interests of those young lives — because both of the adults in this case, whether or not they both like it, are already their parents.
‐ “He’s a heavy-handed son of a bitch, and he doesn’t know any other way of operating, and he will do anything he can to win at any price, including ignoring the rules, bending the rules, writing rules, denying the House the opportunity to work its will. It brings disrespect to the House itself.” So said Representative Dick Cheney (R., Wyo.) about his colleague Representative Jim Wright (D., Texas). Wright was majority leader from 1977 to 1987. Then he was speaker. He bedeviled President Reagan and Republicans on Central America and many other issues. He was forced to resign in 1989 on ethical charges: He had apparently arranged for certain parties to buy his autobiography in bulk, as a way of getting around limits on gifts and speaking fees. He received a 55 percent royalty on the book. The man was not without charm, as when he said, “Royalty proceeds are going to my favorite charity: Mrs. Wright and me.” Dead at 92. R.I.P.
‐ Ben E. King’s years as a top-selling singer occurred during the fearful/hopeful interlude between Elvis’s joining the Army and the Beatles’ invading (or between Sputnik and LBJ, or Little Rock and “I Have a Dream”). His easy, confident baritone and supple phrasing made bittersweet classics of such songs as “Spanish Harlem,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Stand by Me” (which King co-wrote). When English accents, feedback, and psychedelia came into fashion and rhythm and blues became soul, King’s popularity waned, but his fans stood by him, and he kept singing for another half century, which saw a creditable stab at 1970s funk with the chart-topping “Supernatural Thing” and a movie-inspired 1980s revival of “Stand by Me” — then as now a universal anthem of faith, trust, love, and loyalty. Dead at 76. R.I.P.
Cameron Wins – and So Does UKIP
On the face of it, the main result of the 2015 general election suggests the restoration of stability to British politics. The Tories went from senior partner in a coalition government to sole governing party. Labour lost seats but remained far ahead of any rivals as the principal opposition party. The 2015 election ended the experiment in coalition government and restored two-party politics as the main feature of the Westminster system.
Right up to the announcement of the BBC exit-poll results, almost everyone was expecting a virtual tie between Labour and the Tories, and accordingly a Parliament in which a governing coalition might have to be composed of three parties. Compared with such a disorderly vision, a simple Tory victory seemed like a return to the 1950s party duopoly. In fact our surprise was an artifact of the opinion polls: If no polls had existed, we would have likely calculated that a government surfing along on a wave of economic recovery would defeat an opposition party led by an untried leader with a left-wing economic agenda.
That surprise has led many commentators to over-interpret the Tory victory. Prime Minister David Cameron’s party won an additional 24 seats and a parliamentary majority of twelve that will allow it to remain in power for a full five-year term. But that parliamentary result rests on a share of the U.K. vote of 36.9 percent, which itself represents an increase of only 0.8 percent over the 2010 share. This is a clear victory but far short of a landslide.
Similarly, Labour was soundly defeated but not routed entirely. Its share of the vote actually rose by 1.5 percent, to 30.4 per cent — a higher rise than the Tory one — and it retains electoral strongholds in three regions of Northern England. Indeed, it gained a net 24 seats outside Scotland.
The two-party seesaw thus remains the underlying structure of British politics. But there the stability ends: Almost all the other election results point to massive and unsettling change and a new status quo in British politics:
One. The collapse of the “centrist” (in fact, center to quite far left) Liberal Democrats. Their popular vote cratered by 15.2 percent, to a meager 7.9 percent, and their parliamentary seats by 49 to only eight.
Two: The SNP’s landslide in Scotland. The SNP now has 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. With 56 seats in the Commons, they will have the ability and perhaps the legitimacy to press the independence case strongly. The SNP’s rise confronts the Tories with what looks like a painful choice: Either yield independence or bribe the Scots to stay in the U.K. with ever-rising amounts of money from Whitehall.
Three: The unnoticed but irresistible rise of UKIP. Most reports have suggested that the U.K. Independence party had an unsuccessful election because it won only one parliamentary seat and its leader, Nigel Farage, lost his own bid for one. Those disappointments, however, reflected the high bar that Britain’s (and America’s) first-past-the-post electoral system sets for incumbent parties rather than how UKIP performed in terms of votes. In fact, electorally, UKIP showed the most improvement in the election: It won 12.6 percent of the total U.K. vote (and 14 percent of the English vote), which was an increase of 9.5 percent over its 2010 base. In other words, UKIP more than quadrupled its vote. In percentage terms, that is twice as strong as the SNP’s landslide. Admittedly, because UKIP’s support is geographically dispersed, all those votes have won the party only one seat. But it is now a permanent part of the political system, with an administrative structure, mass membership, and seats in local government, Westminster, and the European parliament (where it has a plurality of British MEPs). So it is now a challenge to both parties and a complicating factor in all their calculations. UKIP is emerging as the party of working-class conservatism throughout England outside London. It poses a future challenge both to Labour on class grounds and to the government as an ideological rival, undermining the previous Tory monopoly on conservatism. It will act as a check on David Cameron’s freedom of action on both Europe and Scotland. If he deviates too far from the interests of his conservative base or those of national-minded English voters, UKIP will be able to challenge him in special elections, local elections, and European elections. As a result, there are now two conservative parties in Britain.
That is the bad news for Cameron amid his triumph. The good news for him, and for Britain, is that those two parties now make up a majority of the electorate.