Is this the end of the UK?

David Runciman

To begin at the beginning: what was the story with Cleggmania Mark I? Was it just a dream? It is a truism of political science that what happens in election campaigns doesn’t make any real difference. By the time the formal campaigning starts the voters pretty much know where they stand. They then have to wait patiently (or impatiently) for a few weeks while politicians and journalists get their knickers in a twist over imagined gaffes and surges, swings and comebacks. Once that is all over, people put their crosses just where they were going to put them anyway. But some recent research by Robert Goodin and James Mahmud Rice suggests that something more complicated might be going on.[*] The polls, they reveal, don’t fluctuate in the run-up to an election because respondents are simply humouring the pollsters with the pretence that their opinions are shifting – their opinions really are shifting. Looked at over a 40-year period, general elections in Britain and Australia show that there is usually a swing of up to five percentage points between the start and the end of a month-long campaign. Then on the day of the vote opinion swings all the way back again. Polls taken at the start of the campaign are invariably closer to the final result than the ones taken at the end. So it’s not that people don’t change their minds. They change their minds twice: once in response to the excitement of the campaign, and once in the privacy of the polling booth.

That was clearly what happened this time too. The polls were nearer to predicting the final result a month before the vote than a day before the vote, when the pollsters overstated Liberal Democrat support by three or more percentage points. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that people who said they had switched to the Lib Dems after the debates didn’t in the end bother to vote (perhaps because many of them were, in the word politicians most dread, ‘students’). But Goodin and Rice show that this isn’t very plausible: there is no evidence that people whose opinion fluctuates are also somehow lazier (Australia, where voting is compulsory, is the test case here). The alternative explanation is what they call the ‘“Responsible Voter” hypothesis’. During the campaign people respond to the immediate pull of media-driven events. But when they come to vote they pause to reflect more broadly on the period since the previous election, which takes them back to the start of the campaign and puts all the intervening excitements into perspective.

So the sense of something dramatic happening during the four weeks of the campaign was not an illusion. It was entirely genuine. No one can have missed the real impact that the debates had on people’s preferences, particularly the first debate, which changed a lot of minds about the merits of Nick Clegg. We must all know somebody who switched allegiance after that; some of us must have done it ourselves. A certain amount of this support tailed off over the following three weeks, but a lot of it was still there on the last day of the campaign. Then it more or less vanished overnight. Something about the act of voting seems to have made Clegg’s plausible manner, and easy stance, and jaunty haircut, less important than they had been even the day before. This should be reassuring: far from the superficial appeal of television diminishing the serious business of democracy, it appears that the serious business of democracy helps to diminish the superficial appeal of television. The debates changed people’s minds. They just didn’t change their votes.

So what were all these responsible voters trying to achieve by voting the way they eventually did? It would be nice to think that they were so pissed off with politics in general, and this bunch of politicians in particular, that they were resolved to contrive a result in which nobody was the winner. Electoral politics resembles sport in many ways – the tribalism, the big build-up, the overwhelming focus on the result – but this election illustrated at least one way in which it is different: in politics when the final whistle blows it is possible for everyone to discover they have lost. On the morning of 7 May it was hard for any of the party leaders to avoid feeling that they had received the cold shoulder. There was a delightful, unnerving symmetry about it; each side had received just enough votes and seats to let them have a sniff of power, but not enough votes or seats to be able to grasp it. For five long days all the satisfactions of victory – the deference of the press, the indulgence of the public, the rubbishing of your rivals – were tantalisingly out of reach.

But tempting as it is to imagine the voters having decided to use the election to torture their politicians, it’s not really plausible. For a start, the torture did not last nearly long enough: after five days everyone suddenly cheered up when they discovered they had got what they wanted after all. The Tories have detoxified the brand, the Lib Dems have got their first real taste of power, and Labour has got the chance for an extended wallow in righteous opposition, having finally dumped Gordon Brown in the process. Have you ever seen such happy politicians? If the voters were trying to punish them for their past transgressions they must be feeling pretty queasy at the sight of all this bonhomie. Next time we are going to have to wield a much bigger stick and really swing it (and maybe we will).

The other problem, though, is that all this requires imputing too much of a group-mind to a pretty flaky electorate, whose behaviour showed enough regional and local variations to suggest there was no master plan. Election night itself was deeply confusing, as big swings in one place were quickly cancelled out by no swing at all somewhere else. The lack of obvious enthusiasm for any of the main parties meant that popular local politicians were able to buck the national trends, though unpopular local ones (hello Lembit Opik, hello Jacqui Smith) couldn’t rely on general goodwill to see them home. Yet in the cold light of morning, once the dust had settled, and before Cameron and Clegg decided to stir it all up again, this looked like a pretty conventional sort of result. A tough economic climate, and a general weariness with and inside the governing party, was enough to produce a solid but hardly exceptional swing towards the main opposition party (the swing the Tories needed for an overall majority, of between 7 and 8 per cent, would have been much more historically unusual). The transformation of British politics that followed appears more like pure chance than anything else. Imputing it to the collective will of the British electorate would be a big mistake. One feature of the result was, however, highly unusual, though it has been rather lost sight of in all the subsequent excitement. For the first time there were two main opposition parties, not one. I am not referring to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. I mean the Tories and Labour.

In England (and to a certain extent in Wales) the Conservatives were the obvious vehicle for voters wanting to express their dissatisfaction with the government. But in Scotland, where the SNP is in government and Labour the main opposition, the Tories made almost no progress at all. There the party that showed the biggest improvement in its vote share from 2005 was Labour. It’s true that the swing from SNP to Labour was negligible (around 0.1 per cent), but the mere fact that Labour was putting on votes in Scotland while shedding them by the bucketload elsewhere in the United Kingdom shows that there were two different elections being fought at the same time. Indeed, it’s just possible that there were three. The other place in the UK where the Labour vote held up much better than expected was London, and London is another place where Labour can claim to be in opposition, to Boris Johnson’s do-nothing, know-nothing mayoral administration. I wouldn’t want to make too many claims for the contribution this role reversal might have made to the final outcome. But it is clear that the public mood made this a difficult election for any government to fight. And Scotland and London are two places where Labour could pretend not to be in government at all.

This is a consequence of devolution, and seen from one perspective, devolution has now made the United Kingdom more or less ungovernable. It is very hard to imagine how a Conservative administration in Westminster, even with the support of the Liberal Democrats, will be able to impose painful spending cuts on Scotland and expect to survive there as a political force. Alex Salmond, the SNP first minister, is already cranking up the moral outrage at the mere thought of it. The Liberal Democrats do give the new government the ballast of some Scottish MPs (11 in all), but in reality it was the Lib Dems who suffered most in Scotland at the election – it was the only major party that saw its share of the vote drop significantly. Even its traditional gripes about proportional representation don’t hold in Scotland – there they get exactly what they deserve (just under 19 per cent of the votes, just under 19 per cent of the seats). However you juggle the numbers, in Scottish terms this new Westminster government really is a coalition of losers. But in the end it was even harder to see how that other possible coalition of losers – a Labour/ Lib Dem alliance – could have forced through tax rises in England, where the Tories have a clear majority of seats and had a margin of victory over Labour in the popular vote of more than 11 per cent. Politics in the UK is now comprehensively out of sync. If the public finances were in better shape, this might not matter so much. But with horribly difficult choices to be made by whoever is in power, the pressures are bound to build.

The Conservative Party, in theory, remains fully committed to the Union. David Cameron repeatedly and pointedly talks about having come into politics to serve ‘our country’, and by that he doesn’t mean England – he means the UK. Yet this election was meant to be the occasion when the Tories re-established themselves as a political presence in Scotland: the expectation among Scottish Tories until very recently was that they would win at least five seats and perhaps more. But they remain stuck on one. This may now be as good as it gets. It is true that the election did not produce the one result that could have signalled the end of the United Kingdom, if Tory dominance in England had been matched by SNP dominance in Scotland, leading to a deal on independence which would have squeezed Labour out in both. But that simply shows that the only party which still has any real political (as opposed to emotional) incentive to keep the Union intact is Labour. But an incentive is one thing; achieving the goal is another. The grisly and short-lived attempt to put together a progressive coalition that might have hooked up the nationalists along with Labour, the Lib Dems and the token Green showed the acute difficulties Labour currently faces in forming a truly national government. What no coalition of any stripe can change is the underlying reality of the situation: at present Labour can only govern England from Scotland, and the Tories can only govern Scotland from England. David Cameron has already gone to Edinburgh to try to smooth things over, and has promised moderately enhanced tax-raising and spending powers for Scotland, but they are unlikely to be enough. Something else will have to give.

What will it be? One obvious possibility is the electoral system itself. I said that the United Kingdom is currently more or less ungovernable, but really it’s only ungovernable under a first-past-the-post system. Now we are promised a referendum on an AV system of semi-proportional representation, plus a raft of other constitutional changes, and after that, who knows? But as almost everyone has noted, these reforms will not be easy to achieve and for now represent little more than fairy dust sprinkled over the new coalition in the hope of holding it together. Apart from anything else, no one really knows what the public’s tastes actually are; certainly this election gave precious few clues. While we wait to find out – and there are bound to be plenty of twists and turns along the way – the other possibility that should not be discounted is a rise in English nationalism. This is the dog that hasn’t barked yet in British politics. There were fears it might in the immediate aftermath of devolution, when the English public woke up to the inequities of a system that had them paying for Scottish services over which they could exercise little control. But during the Blair years there was enough money around to paper over the cracks. Not any more. In this respect, British devolution is a bit like that other great constitutional project launched for the new millennium, the euro. It worked fine to start with, when it was awash with cheap credit and good intentions. But when the money runs out, the cracks start to show.

Some Tory politicians have flirted with English nationalism over the past few years, including David Davis, who but for a duff speech at the 2005 Tory Conference might just have become prime minister (instead, he’s been frozen out of the coalition government in favour of Iain Duncan Smith, an ominous sign that the new administration prefers wholly bogus right-wing liberal conservatism to the real thing). In the end, Davis decided the English had no real appetite for nationalist politics. But the Conservative Party may need to find one. Indeed, it is hard to see how the Conservatives are going to find anything else to hold them together if/when things start to go wrong. There is a sporting analogy that is often helpful in politics, particularly at the dawn of a brave new era. Whenever the England cricket team is making a promising start, Geoffrey Boycott likes to snarl: ‘Imagine two more wickets down, bang, bang. Doesn’t look so pretty now, does it?’ The fresh-faced opening pair of Cameron and Clegg have made a nice start in the crisp May sunshine, but the innings has barely begun. It will be more than two wickets down before long. How will things look then? The brutal political and economic realities of the next five to ten years (and who knows, maybe well beyond that) mean that all the parties are going to need to discover ways to deflect the public’s grievances. What better option have the Tories got than the furious and resentful politics of nationalism? As the economies of Europe stutter and shrink, nationalism is on the rise almost everywhere. In Britain we have been blinded to it by our insularity and by the risible performance of the British National Party. But British nationalism is a red herring in this context. It’s the contest between Scottish nationalism and English nationalism that will do much to shape the future.

In that light, let me introduce one more name to the ever growing list of people who can be said to have changed British politics during this bizarre election season. It’s someone who doesn’t come from this country, and no longer lives here, and may not even be alive when you read this, though he was still alive when I wrote it. The Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, did as much to shape the contours of this election as anyone. When he was returned to Libya on compassionate grounds by the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, in August last year, it was widely reported that he had three months to live. At the time some joked that it didn’t really matter so long as he was dead by the time of the general election. Well, he wasn’t, and it was never much of a joke. Because I do not live in Scotland I cannot say how important this case was to the vote there – the gulf between the news coverage north and south of the border means that we barely speak the same political language any more. But I can safely say that al-Megrahi’s name never once featured in the election I was following down south. No English politicians said anything about him, nor any Scottish politicians trawling for English votes. He was never mentioned in the prime ministerial debates, though his release was a central point of difference in the Scottish equivalent (when Alex Salmond was asked whether the Dunblane killer, Thomas Hamilton, would have been released under similar circumstances, he replied that he would not; Labour demanded that Salmond apologise to the victims of Lockerbie). And that is the point – outside Scotland, no one cared.

In Scotland, the opinion polls strongly suggest that the decline in support for the SNP can be traced to the controversy surrounding al-Megrahi’s release. As the governing party, it was unable to escape responsibility for a politically nightmarish decision. Labour in Scotland, meanwhile, was able to posture indignantly on the sidelines, despite the fact that the Labour government in Westminster was thoroughly complicit behind the scenes. Al-Megrahi is symptomatic of the double-game that Labour was uniquely able to play in this election, allowing it to buck the possibility of a uniform swing against it. Yet without the possibility of uniform swings across the different parts of the United Kingdom the British political system is unsustainable.

Of course Labour will be hoping that with a shiny new leader it will be able to engineer such a swing next time. There is already absurd talk about the need to find someone who can compete with Cameron and Clegg in the next round of televised prime ministerial debates, as if the election hadn’t just shown that the debates are not what matters. What matters is everything that precedes them. One thing that is certain, at least, is that the new Labour leader will be English – indeed, all the likely contenders (Miliband, Miliband, Balls, Burnham, Cruddas) are in their different ways very English. But in England itelf, Labour still has an electoral mountain to climb. If English nationalism does start to lumber into life, with a prod from the disgruntled Tory right, Labour’s new leader will have a difficult calculation to make. Does he side with the English, and risk a big SNP revival, or does he shore up his Scottish power base, and risk further alienating his limited English support? This will be a much harder double-game to play than al-Megrahi. It is just one puzzle among many that have been thrown up by the curious new shape of British politics, and no doubt others are more pressing. Does there still have to be a Lib Dem on BBC panel discussions, or will a Tory do? Will Clegg stand in as prime minister when Cameron goes on paternity leave? Can all of this conceivably last five years? In much less time than that many unexpected and unusual things will happen. But underneath the uncertainty is the steady, barely perceptible unravelling of a patched-up, threadbare UK constitution.

14 May

[*] ‘Waking Up in the Poll Booth’, Perspectives on Politics (December 2009).