Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Interesting Times in Britain

Thursday’s election in the UK returned, against all expectation, a majority Conservative government.  In the months in the lead up to the vote the polls had shown the Tories and Labour in a tight neck-and-neck race to become the biggest party in the Parliament, with UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens also fighting for seats. The Scottish National Party was on course to overturn the Labour majority in Scotland, and all the talk was of a hung parliament with Ed Miliband’s Labour party in a better position to form a coalition or minority government.

In the end Labour was heavily defeated in Scotland and England. The defeat in Scotland was so devastating that the SNP now hold all but 3 of the Scottish seats, with their candidates unseating Labour heavy-weights (Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman was unseated by a 20-year old politics student, who will presumably be automatically granted her degree by the university). The Conservatives managed to take some seats from Labour (the net exchange was slightly in Labour’s favour, but they didn’t make up nearly enough ground to offset their Scottish losses), and the Lib Dem seats were divided by the Conservatives and Labour, leaving them with a mere 8 seats.

A majority Conservative government and a strong SNP presence in the Parliament heralds some interesting times for Britain. Cameron has had trouble with the rebellious right-wing of the party in the past, which has driven him into ever more Euroskeptic positions. The slim majority his government will have means that these rebels could have a big impact on the government, ensuring that it is steered further to the right.  Meanwhile, the SNP were elected on a platform of being anti-Conservative and anti-austerity, as well as seeking to maximise Scottish autonomy within the UK after the failed independence referendum. Together with the two big issues of this parliament – how to deal with devolution in Scotland (and its effects on England) and how to define the relationship with the EU – it looks like the next 5 years will be politically turbulent. Already this weekend Cameron appointed Michael Gove as Justice Secretary with the job of repealing the Human Rights Act that transposes the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.

Since Cameron announced the referendum on EU membership in 2013, he has failed to properly articulate what he wants to change. The last government laboured over a report on the UK-EU relationship, which was meant to be a comprehensive inquiry into the balance of competences. It got a lot of PR at the time, but ever since the report concluded that the balance of competences are pretty much right, the report has sunk into political obscurity. The referendum, whether in 2016 or 2017, will now have to be held, but the shape of a “reformed EU” that would be acceptable to anyone has yet to be defined.

It’s going to be a rocky few years in the UK…

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