The British election confounded pollsters and disappointed many, including most of my friends in the UK. I too wasn’t thrilled by the result for many reasons. Here are just a few thoughts on the significance of the election, and how it’ll shape Britain for the years to come.
- Evisceration of the Lib Dems – very sad. A moderating force in UK politics. The party I’ve always liked most. Lots of capable and decent politicians lost their seats. Hard to see how they can come back from this – they’ll never be an insurgent party again. Expect politics to be shriller and dumber without them.
- SNP landslide – I don’t take umbrage at the Scots for voting for a nationalist party. They’re politically well to the left of England, and the SNP will be assiduous in pushing through the further devolution that was promised before the referendum. However, probably a sign that the union is doomed.
- Labour’s collapse – I was never a huge fan of Ed Miliband, though he was starting to make himself more plausible towards the end of the election. Slightly relieved to see the back of Ed Balls. Hopefully a new leader will galvanize the party and figure out how to repair its non-London base (Alan Johnson would be nice, if he can get round the fact he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister). Really sad to see Labour destroyed in Scotland – Scottish Labour were a bastion of early socialism and have been a protector of workers’ rights for a long time. I also liked Jim Murphy. Labour (and the LibDems) were also the only parties with a real nation wide presence. Now there’s no-one who can truly claim to speak for the UK as a whole.
- Tory victory – I find it hard to work up much hatred for Cameron. He certainly doesn’t personally seem like a right wing ideologue. The “anti-toff” rhetoric that gets thrown at him whiffs more of American-style culture wars than intelligent socialism. However, I really don’t trust or like the Tory party as a whole. Lots of paleoconservatives on the back benches with nasty anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-EU values. Also worryingly buddy-buddy with the major financial institutions. And without the Lib Dems to back him up, or even a decent majority to give him breathing room, I fear Cameron will be more beholden to the backbenches than ever. I’m also increasingly skeptical of what Paul Krugman calls “austerianism” – which many economists believe to be macroeconomic madness.
- The future – looks grim. But I can see a few things that Cameron might do that will be both beneficial and not inconceivable.
- Devolution and the West Lothian question. Scotland has already been promised wider powers. I think the smartest way to proceed would be to go whole-hog federalist for the UK, with an English assembly. The Tories would love this, since they’re effectively an England-only party, but it also does need doing if the Union is going to have any chance of survival.
- EU referendum. Looks like we’re stuck with this. Cameron wants to ‘renegotiate’ fundamentals of the EU. No-one wants constitutional change since that would trigger EU wide referenda. But if he’s smart he’ll just pick a few low hanging fruit – e.g., trimming bureaucracy – where he has ready allies among other European leaders. He could then trumpet these loudly and win a referendum. Unfortunately, Cameron has a terrible record of building Europe-wide alliances and has annoyed just about every major leader in the continent. More likely he makes a fool of himself and Britain votes to leave. This would probably be the final push required for Scotland to go fully independent.
- Constitutional reform and proportional representation. It’d be great if this happened (ideally single transferrable vote). Weirdly I feel like there’s a decent amount of widespread non-partisan support for it since the rise of the SNP (which did far better than it would have done without FPTP) and UKIP and the Greens (which did far worse). Still, I don’t think it’s likely, because the conservatives have little to gain.
- I’m honestly running out of more positive things to say. The conservatives have pledged to slash the deficit further by cutting, among other things, welfare expenditure. Britain is already close to full employment (estimated around 5%), so we’ll continue to see a lackluster recovery marked by abysmal productivity, stagnating real wages, moderate inflation, and the persistence of the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.
- Foreign policy won’t change much. Cameron is not a global figure, and under his watch Britain’s influence has shriveled. He’ll probably marginally boost the currently anemic defense budget but not enough to make a real difference. Trident will finally go ahead, taking the issue off the table for a generation.
- Social policy – no change. Many Tory MPs are already suspicious of the suddenly emboldened ‘homosexual agenda’. Same with drugs/crime policy.
It’s sad – when I look ahead to Britain twenty years from now, I foresee an independent Scotland, and the rest of country even more dominated by financial services and the London bubble. Good news for wealthy financial service professionals, plus Arabs, Russians, and other long-term London tourist-residents, and okay for the people who are happy to clean their homes, sell them cars, and watch their children. Bad news for most everyone else. We won’t be EU members, and we won’t have much other domestically owned industry to speak of, although we’ll continue our commendable trend of fostering small innovative high tech startups like Deep Mind for American firms to buy out. We’ll possibly have about as much global influence as Australia or Canada if we’re lucky (probably less, since we don’t have any natural resources to sell).