UK elections highlight a divided kingdom

So, who will rule Britannia?

Chris Doyle
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So, who will rule Britannia? A tired British electorate deluged by the political aristocracy and revolutionaries of the land for six weeks have voted, the ballots are being counted and the excuses rolled out. The one thing that is missing is a result and we may have to wait a while yet. The exit polls predict the Conservative Party may be the largest party just getting a majority that none of the polls had predicted.

Bizarrely there was little to no debate over Britain’s place in the world. The politicians realized the electorate were more concerned with other issues

Chris Doyle

British elections have largely been simple affairs. A two-horse race and a clear majority in a first-past-the-post voting system typically settled matters for four to five years. There would always been a few tight exciting marginals and few major political figures vulnerable to minor swings in the electorate’s mood. A third party would creep in just to keep things interesting but never genuinely challenging. Both Thatcher and Blair won huge majorities of over a hundred seats, giving them almost a free hand to dominate the country’s political scene.

A significant vote

This all changed in 2010 with the first coalition government since 1974. But if that was a landmark poll, 2015 promises to be a far more significant occasion. It may take days even weeks to pick out a winner according to the polls. As it stands after early results came in, the Conservatives may just become the largest party but fall short of a majority.

But why is this even more drastic than 2010? Firstly Scotland. The results here were dramatic. Hadrian’s wall, built by the Romans to keep the Scots out, has been a continuing theme in the election. Politics on one side of the wall is a world apart from the other. Ever since the days of Thatcher, Scotland has been toxic for the Tories. They only won a single seat out of 59 in 2010. However, in 2015 it appears to be almost as toxic for the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. The Scottish National Party (SNP) that had only 6 seats in the last Parliament is predicted in the exit poll to surge to around 56 seats. The Conservatives may be governing the country but still only will have one seat in Scotland, posing major legitimacy issues.

Does this matter? Firstly, it prevented the Labour party winning on its own so Labour leader Ed Miliband may be resigning rather than entering Downing Street. The SNP’s leader Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear that the SNP will not roll over. So the whole party political make up in Westminster will change. Secondly, it will reignite the drive towards Scottish independence that many had hoped had been closed for at least a generation in last September’s referendum. Such an incredible showing by the SNP will surely put the issue back on the agenda much sooner. Therefore British politics for the next five years at least will be obsessed with how to keep this union together. The Welsh and Irish nationalist movements may also be buoyed by the SNP’s example.

Challenging issues

It looks like the Conservative party under David Cameron has done better than expected and can form a workable coalition but Scotland will still be an issue, as will the future of Britain’s role in the European Union. The Conservatives have pledged to hold an in-out referendum by 2017, something Cameron insists is non-negotiable in a coalition talks. The Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU party, and Cameron’s former coalition partner, are extremely reluctant to agree to this but the night was disastrous for them leaving them with around ten seats. They see such a referendum as tantamount to creating political and financial instability over the next two years. If the Eurosceptic Tories get their way, Europe will dominate the post-election landscape even if it barely figured actually during the six-week campaign.

So the United Kingdom will be contemplating break-up or break out from the EU, arguably even both. It does not bode well for those who would like to see Britain take a lead on the international stage. British politics could well go very introspective just at the moment when international crises from Ukraine to North Africa to the Middle East are straining every diplomatic sinew. Whoever becomes foreign secretary (few expect Philip Hammond to keep the post in any scenario), will be overwhelmed with EU Affairs.

But if there is positive news in all this the surge of the extreme right withered away. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) at one stage seemed on course for a handsome result but may well be tacked back to just one or two seats. Nevertheless its anti-Europe, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim track record has helped shape this election. David Cameron must tackle this or see Britain ripped apart not just be breaking up the union but the very fabric of society itself.

Britain’s place in the world

Bizarrely there was little to no debate over Britain’s place in the world. The politicians realized the electorate were more concerned with other issues. This points the way forward. The British public is tired of overseas exploits after the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. David Cameron attempted to get a Parliamentary majority for strikes on Syria in 2013 but failed not least because the public simply did not support it.

So it is a Britain unsure of itself, lacking in confidence. Should it remain united, remain in Europe and remain a multicultural society? If David Cameron does not have to call in the removal vans to 10 Downing Street, he will have a colossal challenge to heal these rifts. He will have to spend far more time on this than any of the major crises across the globe.


Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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