The disunited kingdom: Cameron must work quickly to stop a declining power fragmenting fast

Labour and the Lib Dems now confront existential crises

Friday 08 May 2015 23:34

The 2015 general election was a watershed which will determine whether we are to remain together as one United Kingdom – and one United Kingdom that can look forward to a future with its closest European neighbours. As with the emergence of Irish nationalism a century ago, and the discovery that it could not be contained within the UK’s parliamentary system, the very boundaries of the nation are now in play. At a time of rapid global change and fast emerging rival powers, that is not in the national interest.

In Scotland, the party system has been re-drawn overnight, the SNP surge ending a half century of Labour hegemony. In the rest of the country the emergence of Ukip and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats have also changed the dynamics of politics. The Conservatives now have a mandate – though weak – to press on with the reforms to welfare and the economy that they talked so much about. Many will fear that inequality will worsen, opportunities will shrink, and that an already fractured society will grow still more damaged.

A catastrophe has befallen Ed Miliband and Labour, and there are fears for what an untrammelled Conservative government will do to the cohesion of the country. After five years of austerity, when living standards for most families have barely improved, if at all, and with the NHS now in jeopardy, to witness Tories open up a six-point lead in the popular vote and an overall majority in the Commons is indeed galling. Labour’s next leader has, somehow, to appeal to the aspirant middle-class families in England that voted for Tony Blair, and also Scottish nationalists sick of austerity. In other words, the next leader needs to be a political giant. Is such a figure available?

One grim fragment of consolation for Labour, however, is that when Jim Murphy – an outstanding public servant who has much still to offer the party – and Mr Miliband warned the people of Scotland that voting for the SNP would help the Tories back into Downing Street, they were right. That, in turn, will most likely end up with Scotland breaking away from the Union, so unacceptable is rule by Tories to the Scots, even if devo-max or fiscal autonomy is delivered. David Cameron may embrace the SNP, so as to kill them with kindness.

All of which leaves the prospect of the UK still being in one piece at the next general election in 2020 in some doubt. That is how hollow this Tory victory is. There is an inevitability about Scottish independence now, and blame also lies with the Westminster parties as much as the Scottish nationalists. The Labour Party’s long-term neglect of Scotland (the “branch office”) had a lot to do with its Scottish nightmare, and Mr Cameron’s reckless pledge about “English Votes for English Laws” the morning after the referendum gave the SNP just the boost it needed. As Peter (now Lord) Mandelson shrewdly pointed out in the course of Thursday evening, Labour found itself squeezed between Scottish nationalism on one side and a variant of English nationalism, via Ukip and the Conservatives, south of the border, on the other.

For the future of the UK in the European Union there are equally grave risks, with a Conservative pledge to hold an in/out referendum that virtually nobody outside the nuttier elements on the Tory back benches wants. In a couple of years Britain could find itself withdrawing from its biggest export market almost by accident: again, a pyrrhic victory for Mr Cameron and his party.

Had the Liberal Democrats fared even a little better than they did, they might have been able to restrain the Conservatives in a renewed coalition, and helped maintain our national constitutional position, economic security and social cohesion. Again they would have acted as a brake on the Tories’ worst instincts, especially in cutting (an unitemised) £12bn from social security payments. After this week, few parties will want to consider junior status in a coalition ever again. Yes, the Lib Dems made plenty of mistakes in coalition – but they did much, much more good. Nick Clegg’s memorable resignation speech was a fitting elegy for the political project which he personified but is now almost bankrupt in Britain: liberalism. He could have done still more in a renewed coalition; as it is Lib Dems are now almost an irrelevance, their leading personalities out of office or humiliated.

Mr Cameron may be allowed his victory. Like Ted Heath in 1970 and John Major in 1992, his success is turbo-charged by it being so unexpected and so associated with him personally. He may or may not have had faith in himself, but 2015 was not the first time the Tories had fought an inept campaign but with the “right” result at the end of it. The “Master”, as Mr Cameron and George Osborne call Tony Blair, never underestimated his Conservative enemy, even as two successive New Labour landslides approached; one wonders if Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg were a little too complacent about the resilience of the Tories’ appeal, and their ruthless determination to hang on to power. Their two successors would do well to start thinking about a truly progressive coalition of their two parties.

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