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Why Britain now faces an uncertainty like never before

An estimated 85% of the press is pro-Conservative, and the party, especially its leader, Ed Miliband, have been under constant attack

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

On May 7, voters went to the polls in the UK, at a time when the country is facing huge uncertainties: uncertainties about its place in the world, its place inside the European Union, and indeed uncertainties about its own existence, in the wake of an almost irresistible wave of Scottish separatism that has been growing in the last few years. And the election was expected to return an equally uncertain result: all previous opinion polls had predicted the result would be unclear, mainstream parties’ support would be fractured, and the incoming government would have to rule with the support with a plethora of small or regional parties.

But the final result confounded all expectations. On the morning of May 8, the country woke up to a Conservative majority in Parliament, with support for the erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, decimated, and with the main opposition Labour party returning fewer Members of Parliament than at any time in the last 30 years. And in Scotland, the separatist Scottish National Party returned 56 out of 59 MPs – a complete wipe-out in an area previously dominated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

How did this happen?

The two great winners, the SNP and the Conservatives, had in fact been of great support to each other over the course of the election campaign, despite sitting on opposite sides of the ideological divide. The Conservatives claimed England, while the SNP claimed Scotland, and from then onwards both played on nationalist sentiments to boost their own support in their local areas. And the both served as excellent bogey men to each other. English voters on average loathe the SNP and bought into the Conservative claim that the SNP would command a great deal of influence over a potential Labour government. And Scottish voters hate the Conservatives with a burning passion, but saw Labour as a pro-union party of Conservative austerity apologists, against whom the SNP would be the only adequate antidote.

An estimated 85% of the press is pro-Conservative, and the party, especially its leader, Ed Miliband, have been under constant attack

Azeem Ibrahim

The Labour party, the only major party to be both genuinely pro-union and pro-Europe, was left beleaguered in the middle of this nationalist onslaught from two directions, and its political positioning left it set to lose dramatically in both England and in Scotland. The smaller Liberal Democrat party fell victim to the same forces, but the part it had played in the last government made its outcome on the night even worse.

Labour was also not helped by the media atmosphere in the UK. An estimated 85% of the press is pro-Conservative, and the party, especially its leader, Ed Miliband, have been under constant attack. Mr Miliband was attacked as weak on the economy (he had worked in the government which was in power during the financial crisis), weak on Scotland, and weak on international affairs. And when that did not seem enough, newspapers felt compelled to dig up his entirely pedestrian romantic history and even attacked his dead father (a well-known and otherwise much respected Marxist intellectual who came to Britain from Germany, fleeing the Nazis just before WW2). Such attacks flopped as often as they hit, but overall they seem to have done the job. And throughout the campaign, polls showed that the Conservative David Cameron was generally regarded as much more “prime-ministerial” than his opponent.

What next?

Despite the unexpectedly clear result of the general election, none of the fundamental uncertainties facing the country have been resolved. In fact, quite the opposite.

First of all, David Cameron had pledged a couple of years ago to hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. Given that at least half of his Conservative party is in favour of leaving the EU, this referendum is now unavoidable. And though for the time being the majority of the British public is against leaving, populist insurgencies have been uncomfortably common in the UK in recent years, so this result cannot be taken for granted. Britain’s role in Europe and indeed the world is now hostage to fate and the vagaries of electoral whim.

Scotland, on the other hand, is now set to ask for ever more autonomy, and perhaps even full fiscal autonomy, which would be a solid step on the way to eventual full independence.

This process can also be catalysed by the EU referendum. If by any chance the UK does vote to leave the EU, Scotland, which is very pro-EU, is expected to demand an independence referendum immediately and seek to rejoin the EU as soon as possible.

And nor are the any mainstream parties in place to resist or to meet any of these challenges. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the two main parties that would and could maintain the UK’s union and its place in the EU, are shattered and will likely be too caught up trying to rebuild themselves. They will lack the power, indeed even the legitimacy, to try and prevent the worst case scenarios.

The British public voted for what may have seemed like a strong and stable government. But the headaches for Britain are only just beginning.

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Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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