Britain's Election Gets Weird

The U.K. can't live with coalition government, and can't live without it.

Not-so-Great Britain.

Photographer: Carl Court

As the British election approaches -- the vote is on Thursday -- opinion polls in Britain suggest that support may be shifting to the Tories. Surprises are possible: Many voters say they're undecided, and small changes in voting intentions, acting on closely contested seats, can move the balance of power in Westminster a lot. Still, at the moment, neither Labour nor the Conservatives seem likely to get a parliamentary majority.

That's awkward in a system that takes one-party rule for granted -- but it gets worse. Consider a very plausible outcome. England rejects Labour and elects a Tory majority. Scotland also rejects Labour, and elects the Scottish National Party in a landslide. Thus, the United Kingdom gets a Labour government.

In this scenario, Labour has a minority in the House of Commons, perhaps with fewer seats than the Tories. But with the SNP's tacit backing (support not amounting to the coalition or "deal" that Ed Miliband, Labour's leader, has promised not to strike with the Scots), Labour can muster more votes for its legislation in the Commons than the Tories and the Liberal Democrats acting together.

England gets a government it did not want, foisted upon it by the actions of an anomalously over-represented Scotland, evidently intent on breaking up the union.

A happier outcome, constitutionally speaking, would be a Labour alliance with the Lib Dems -- maybe representing a majority of both votes and seats in England. Again, though, getting legislation passed would probably require the Scots to go along.

In either case, the crucial thing in all this would not be Britain's traditional aversion to rule by coalition, powerful as that is. It would be the pivotal role in the U.K. government played by an avowedly anti-U.K. party (commanding, by the way, less than 5 percent of the vote in England, Scotland and Wales, and not much more than 50 percent of the vote even in Scotland).

This ridiculous prospect makes an eloquent case for Scottish independence or voting reform -- and maybe both.

The Scots seem to be ashamed of themselves for having voted no in last year's independence referendum, and they're punishing Labour and England to make amends for their timidity. At this rate, an all-U.K. referendum on Scottish independence would pass with no trouble. After a few months of Alex Salmond and his team in Westminster, the English will want freedom for Scotland more avidly than the Scots. A friendly divorce is beginning to look like the best solution for all concerned.

Amid the constitutional upheaval, voting reform could happen as well. The perversity of the first-past-the-post system explains how a small majority of Scots can wipe out Labour north of the border and call the shots in London. The obverse is the fate of the Lib Dems -- and, much more so, that of the U.K. Independence Party. The SNP's votes are geographically concentrated; votes for UKIP and the Lib Dems are dispersed, hence ineffective. 

Lib Dems are projected to get more than 8 percent of the vote in England, Scotland and Wales, but less than 4 percent of the seats. UKIP is projected to get 13 percent of the vote, and maybe 2 seats out of 650. Shame about the moderate Lib Dems, you might say, but surely a voting system that stifles an extremist party such as UKIP is a good thing. Not necessarily. Such a patently unfair result could feed extremism rather than suppress it. 

An outright constitutional crisis -- which, after this election, isn't unthinkable -- could finally convince Britain that voting reform is necessary. Yet British attitudes would need to change drastically to make some form of proportional representation work. The whole point of such representation is to institutionalize coalition government -- that is, to institutionalize compromise. The idea may be second nature in most of Europe, but still seems as strange to Brits as it does to Americans.

Indeed, far from moving under pressure of events to a more consensual style of politics, Britain's voters are running the other way. The SNP and UKIP, whose strong support has been the salient feature of this election, are viscerally opposed to compromise. Consider on the other hand the fate of the Lib Dems -- the perpetual moderates, the indefatigable difference-splitters, of British politics. See where that kind of attitude gets you.

The Lib Dems are on course to lose more than half their seats. This isn't because of the unfair voting system; it's because their support among voters in England and Wales has fallen from 24 percent in the last election to a projected 8 percent this time. Nick Clegg, the party's leader and co-architect of the coalition with the Tories, is in danger of losing his own seat.

The country at large, and many even in his own party, are disgusted by the way Clegg made common cause with the Tories. On television on Thursday, facing yet another hostile audience, he was asked for the thousandth time how, having broken his promise not to raise university tuition fees, he could ever expect to be trusted again. That's right -- university tuition fees. How dare the man deviate on an issue of such surpassing importance? He said he wouldn't apologize for compromising. Cue snorts of derision.

Well, that's the thing about coalition government. It means never having to say you're sorry. You avoid making promises, and you're willing to break the promises you do make. That just isn't British. The country can no longer live with the system it has, and it recoils in horror at the alternative.  Interesting times.  

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