The Last British General Election?

News Abroad
tags: UK election

Luke Reader received a Ph.D. in History from University of California, Irvine.  He has published on the imperial policy of the Labour Party and on the BBC.  He has taught at John Carroll University, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica College, and Saddleback College and was formerly a press officer in the UK Civil Service.


Is winning an election always a good thing?  David Cameron, the victorious British Conservative Prime Minister, might be forgiven for contemplating this question. Although his Conservatives won 331 seats in the 650 member House of Commons, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 out of 59 available Scottish seats.  When Cameron spoke outside of No. 10 Downing Street on the day after the election his statement was redolent with themes of unity, promising to “govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom.”  Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was elected in 2010 Britain has been buffeted by austerity economics, especially spending cuts and benefit reductions, stagnant living standards, and an increasing gap between rich and poor.  Yet in the last six months it is two different forms of nationalism – Scottish and English - that have come to define the disunion of the United Kingdom.  Although these nationalisms differ in character, both reflect the long arc of history.  

In Scotland, nationalism is a civic-minded response to economic change.  The SNP has moved beyond the anti-English sentiment of the 1970s and 1980s to build a genuinely national coalition encompassing left and right, rich and poor, and Scots born and immigrant.  The roots of this process lie in the free-market reforms of the 1979 to 1997 when Conservative governments picked apart the social fabric of industrial communities across Britain.  This process disproportionately affected Scotland.  Its economy had long been based around heavy industry – steel, coalmining, shipbuilding, and manufacturing.  As unemployment reached the hundreds of thousands in Scotland in the 1980s, the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major proved unwilling to support industry or protect jobs.  Nor did revenue from North Sea oil help many Scots.  The proceeds of oil extraction tended to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, many of whom lived in South East England, rather than provide for education, health, or improvements to national infrastructure. 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Scottish voters increasingly considered the Conservatives to be anti-Scottish and uncaring.  The final straw was the early imposition of a UK national poll tax in Scotland in 1989, against the advice of Thatcher’s own Scottish MPs and ministers. Support for the Conservatives collapsed.  From 31% of votes and 22 out of 72 MPs in 1979, the Conservatives won just 15% of the vote and one MP in 2015.  Voters flocked to the Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s, but disillusion set in with the embroilment of the government of Tony Blair in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuation of Thatcherite economic policies.  When Labour politicians campaigned with their Conservative peers for a no vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, many voters had simply had enough. 

Despite losing the 2014 Scottish independence referendum 45% to 55%, the SNP has successfully transformed the political language in Scotland.  It took on the mantle of Labour in its own heartland, contrasting a materialistic, individualistic, and anti-immigrant Conservative-dominated Westminster with a social democratic, inclusive, and communal Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.  Such ideas have had profound rhetorical resonance in Scotland.  This is despite polls that show similar levels of support in England and Scotland for wealth redistribution, social spending, and the National Health Service, and shared unease about mass immigration to the UK. 

The campaign of the Conservatives, as well as the Labour Party, only sharpened the philosophical differences seen in the Scottish political imagination.  Labour and Conservative manifestoes promised to continue cuts in spending, differing only over their extent and location.  Nor was Scottish nationalism dealt with effectively.  After the independence referendum, David Cameron promised more devolution to Scottish voters.  There was a caveat though.  It would happen in parallel with constitutional reforms in England that included English votes for English laws.  In the 2015 election campaign, the Prime Minister appealed to English voters by invoking the bogeyman of the SNP holding a minority Labour government to ransom.  

The Poujadist, nativist, and anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have also had an outsized effect upon British politics.  UKIP anti-immigration rhetoric has had some appeal to economically depressed working-class Conservative and Labour voters in England.  Both Labour and the Conservatives appeased UKIP nativism by pledging to limit immigration.  Although UKIP elected just one MP, many Conservatives are receptive to their suspicion of the European Union (EU).  So too are elements of the influential Conservative press, which dominates Britain’s newspaper industry.  In an effort to defuse the tensions over Europe that destroyed the Thatcher and Major governments, Cameron has conceded a referendum by 2017 on Britain’s status in the EU. 

Despite calls for unity by Cameron, the centrifugal forces of two different nationalisms may well determine the political future of the United Kingdom. The newly elected SNP MPs will surely be suspicious of the Conservative government.  Reform is certain.  The only question is whether it is enough to ensure the survival of the UK.  Yet if Britain votes to leave the European Union – unlikely, but not impossible – the history of the nation may be over anyway.  Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, has stated that such an event would precipitate another independence referendum.  As the United Kingdom commemorates the seventieth anniversary of victory in WWII, Cameron must be left with a nagging worry that he will be the prime minister who presided over the end of Britain.


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