In October 1951 the prime minister decided to call a general election. He wrote to the leader of the opposition informally (“My dear Churchill”) to let him know, before Parliament was dissolved, and polling day took place less than three weeks later. Clement Attlee was displeased by the outcome, with some reason: the Labour Party he had previously led to victory in two elections won a slightly larger popular vote than the Conservatives, but the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of parliamentary seats. And so Winston Churchill returned to 10 Downing Street, shortly before his seventy-seventh birthday.
To look back at that election and to compare it with this year’s is to see the complete transformation of British politics in my lifetime. Even though we now have a Conservative government with a parliamentary majority for the first time in eighteen years, there was another startling outcome in Scotland, quite unimagined as late as last summer. A generation ago the Scottish National Party (SNP) was a tiny fringe group advocating Scottish independence, and at the last election in 2010 it won a mere six seats. This May it won fifty-six of fifty-nine seats in Scotland.
Another fringe group, as it had long seemed, the right-wing Europhobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), gained a dramatic 13 percent of the popular vote. Thanks to the capricious electoral system, this gave it a solitary MP, but the indirect effect of the UKIP vote was very important in drawing votes away from Labour.
One unhappy change is that the prime minister no longer chooses to call an election as Attlee did. The decision has now been taken out of the prime minister’s hands by the deplorable Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was passed when the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was arranged five years ago, as a way of yoking the two together, but it not only weakened the power of Parliament, it meant that we have known for years that there would be an election this May 7. The effect was to paralyze the government for months before polling day, and to give us the unending electoral cycle that afflicts American politics.
But if there was no shock about the date, there was about the result. In 1951 Labour hoped to win again, and barely lost. This year, there was an almost universal assumption that no party would win an outright majority of parliamentary seats, and that we were in for the kind of wrangling between parties that follows a Belgian or Israeli election. Labour seriously hoped to win at the least the largest number of seats, allowing it to form a coalition or minority government, and was encouraged in this belief by the polls, which right until the end suggested that the two larger parties, Conservatives and Labour, were neck and neck, with the lead regularly alternating: only ten days before election day a headline in the Financial Times read “Poll Gives Labour a 3-Point Lead.”
Polling stations here close at 10 PM. As the hour struck ten on that night of Thursday, May 7, hopes were high at the headquarters of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Then just after ten came the news from the exit polls: David Cameron and the Tories were well ahead of Labour and on their way to a clear victory. Several people expressed incredulity. Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said that he would “eat my hat” if these figures were true, while a well-known pollster writhed with embarrassment as he wondered whether the exit polls could be accurate.
As the night wore on, they proved more than that, and every previous poll turned out to be wrong. Nuneaton in Warwickshire (of which more later) lies in the very middle of England, a marginal seat held by the Tories and one of the seats that Labour had to win to have any chance at all of forming a government. At 1:30 AM the Tories held Nuneaton, having doubled their majority, and the game was up for Labour. There was worse to come. Had he won, Miliband would have made Ed Balls his chancellor of the exchequer and Douglas Alexander his foreign secretary. At 8:30 on Friday morning the news that Balls had lost his seat in Yorkshire was greeted by raucous cheers on the trading floor of Credit Suisse, and no doubt other London banks.
And then Alexander also lost his seat near Glasgow to the SNP candidate, Mhairi Black, a twenty-year-old student who hasn’t yet completed her degree. By the time the last votes were counted, that “3-Point Lead” over the Tories, if it ever existed, had turned into a 6.5-point lead for the Conservatives, who had 36.9 percent of the popular vote to Labour’s 30.4. Labour had in fact slightly increased its overall vote from five years before, and increased it more than the Tories increased theirs, but that’s small comfort. The only thing that counts is which party wins the most votes in each parliamentary constituency. The Tories won 331 seats, Labour 232.
As Walter Bagehot, the Victorian writer who is the godfather of political theorizing and punditry, would have said, there’s no arguing with the brute fact of a parliamentary majority. Labour won twenty-six fewer seats than in 2010. Miliband acknowledged the scale of the defeat by resigning as party leader. So did Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, whose party had suffered a worse disaster.
In the 1983 election, the newly formed Social Democratic Party, led by Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams and others who had bolted from the Labour Party as it swerved left, formed an electoral alliance with the old Liberal Party. This Alliance won more than 25 percent of the popular vote in that election, but the cruel inequities of the “Westminster” (though also Capitol Hill) electoral system—“first past the post,” or simple plurality in individual districts—meant that, with a quarter of the vote, the Alliance won only about one seat in twenty-eight.
But they persevered, amalgamated as the Liberal Democrats, and five years ago in 2010, when no party won an absolute majority, the “Lib Dems” with fifty-seven seats held the parliamentary balance, and Nick Clegg decided to go into coalition government with the Tories. In his rather weird memoir, A Journey (2010), Tony Blair says that the Lib Dems’ trouble was that they always preferred being critics to being actors. In May 2010 Clegg took to the stage, accepted the burden of office and the burden of responsibility that goes with it, and he has now suffered most grievously, as his party’s vote plummeted and it won only eight seats.
As for Cameron, he had pulled off a remarkable victory, against the polls and pundits and literally against the odds. Few of us can claim to have foreseen this. Although I had a strong hunch the Tories would do better than the 285 seats that was the bookmakers’ margin the day before the election, I didn’t think they would win a clear victory. I can never remember an election in which the betting odds against the winner were so high, up to 7 to 1 for anyone who backed an outright Tory victory in the day before the election. So a little humility is in order, certainly from the pollsters. Just why were they so wrong?
The first excuse advanced is the “shy Tories”—people who were reluctant to say that they might vote Conservative but then did so with ballot paper and pencil in hand. This is far from new, and far from only British. In the crucial Italian election of 1948, when it looked for a moment as though the Communists might win, the Christian Democrats used the clever unofficial slogan, “In the polling booth, Stalin cannot see you but God can.”
In American politics it became known as the “Bradley effect,” after the 1982 election for governor of California, when all the polls showed that the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, would win easily, but on the day he lost. Likewise the hard-right French National Front has habitually done better in actual elections than polls have suggested, as Likud did in the recent Israeli election, although that may have been partly the result of Benjamin Netanyahu’s lurid warning that Arabs were voting “in droves.”
But there is more to it. This election might have been about the economy, or the National Health Service, or Europe, or immigration. All those played their part, but a year ago we never imagined the reality—the election was above all about Scotland. On May 7, we witnessed the implosion of our traditional political culture, and perhaps the imminent dissolution of the United Kingdom.
When Attlee and Labour contested with Churchill’s Tories, popular engagement in politics was high, there was an almost purely two-party system, and those two parties were truly national, both enjoying strong support throughout the United Kingdom from Caithness to Cornwall. In 1951, Tories and Labour divided almost 97 percent of the popular vote between them; by 2010 that had fallen to 65 percent and it was only a little more this year. That makes prediction harder than ever.
We have had periods when third parties held the parliamentary balance, as the Irish party did in favor of the Liberals after 1910, or when there was true three-party politics, as in the 1920s, with Labour coming up to overtake the Liberals. But if, as A.J.P. Taylor said of that time, the British electoral system “was ill adapted to cope with three parties,” how much less adapted is it to cope with electing a Commons where eleven parties are now represented, five of which campaign throughout the whole country, and six more of which are from the “Celtic fringe,” Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?
In that 1951 election, Tories and Labour won thirty-five seats each in Scotland. Four years later in the 1955 election, hard as it is to believe as I write this, the Tories actually won a majority of the seats in Scotland, and even managed to win seven of fifteen seats in the great industrial city of Glasgow. To cut short a fascinating story, the Tories dwindled away in Scotland, a decline accelerated by the Tory government of the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s open disdain for Scottish municipal socialism, expressed in her wonderfully tactless “Sermon on the Mound” to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, in which she quoted Saint Paul’s words that “if a man will not work he shall not eat,” and in general told the Scots to get their act together.
Maybe she thought she had nothing to lose, but Labour had. Labour had come to dominate Scotland politically, but had been spooked by the intermittent successes of the SNP, which won eleven seats in 1974 and then won a surprising by-election in 1988, the same year as Thatcher’s sermon. Labour responded by stoking the fire of Scottish resentment and making a “Claim of Right”: “The sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.” The Labour politician Robin Cook went further, saying that under the Tory government, “to all intents and purposes Scotland is an occupied country.” Those words would come back to haunt his party.
In 1997, Tony Blair and Labour won a landslide victory, and the Tories were obliterated in Scotland: within a little over forty years they had gone from winning a majority of Scottish seats to winning none at all. The Labour government created a devolved assembly and executive at Edinburgh, carefully designed so that no one party, in particular the SNP, could ever win an absolute majority there. The SNP then proceeded to win an absolute majority.
When Cameron became prime minister, he was maneuvered by Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, into holding a referendum on Scottish independence on what Salmond thought favorable terms. It took place last September. Spooked in turn by polls suggesting that “Yes” might win, Cameron made reckless last-minute promises to the Scots, and then, as soon as “No” had won a clear victory, said that there would have to be compensation for England in the form of “EVEL,” the unhappy acronym meaning that in Parliament there should be only English votes for English laws. This enraged many Scots, and produced a tidal wave of support for the SNP, which swept away the other parties this May.
Nearly the most prominent figure in this election was Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP. There were several television debates, their odd character shaped by Cameron’s determination not to meet Miliband and Clegg face to face. So first we had Cameron and Miliband interviewed separately (and contemptuously) by Jeremy Paxman of the BBC. Then later, those two and Clegg appeared together in Leeds, but taking questions from an audience rather than arguing with each other.
Between those we had a debate with seven party leaders, but not Cameron. Sturgeon was the star of that show, which is all the odder since she was not even herself a parliamentary candidate. She may have impressed some people with her aggressive and intransigent language about an independent Scotland, but all unseen she was having another effect. The rise of the SNP has been compared with the struggle for Home Rule in Ireland in the 1880s, when the Irish Parliamentary Party was led by Charles Parnell, another formidable figure. Listening to Sturgeon I was reminded of what the historian Robert Ensor, who was a young radical journalist during the later part of the Home Rule drama, wrote much later:
Parnell had made a worse mistake than that. All through his career, in practising oderint dum metuant [the phrase that Cicero borrowed and Caligula relished, “Let them hate us so long as they fear us”] towards the English politicians, he had forgotten that there was an England behind them. He had never tired of saying that he held himself responsible to his countrymen only, and did not in the least care what the English thought or said about him; his whole attitude expressed a deliberate hatred towards their nation, which was not unnaturally returned.
That comparison is in one way unfair to Sturgeon, who likes to say that she bears no animosity toward the people of England. But she expresses vituperative animosity toward the Tories. During the debates, she claimed to be the real voice of the left, and she engaged in a kind of banter with Miliband, with him saying that he would never form any coalition or do any kind of deal with the SNP, and her saying, in effect, oh yes you will. Since her strategy clearly did depend on Labour’s being the largest party after the election, it has now gone badly awry, though that hasn’t tempered her aggrieved rhetoric.
For all his haughty disdain, Parnell never claimed any right to dictate British politics beyond his demand for Irish autonomy. But Sturgeon has not only insisted that the Tory government must not “defy the democratic will of the people of Scotland”; she says that she has a “mandate on a scale unprecedented for any political party, not just in Scotland but right across the UK.” This is megalomania, or to be more polite, simply delusional. A great European democracy of 63 million people has just held a general election, in which her party won 4.7 percent of the popular vote. A mandate across the whole country?
If we knew early on that the SNP was going to triumph in Scotland, it was harder until the very end of the campaign to perceive the reaction to this in England, and what its effect would be. It was instructive to compare two writers, the playwright David Hare and John Harris of The Guardian. A week before the election, Hare told us that “round here we’re all talking ABC: Anyone But Cameron,” and then, after a good deal more self-righteousness, “The obligation of any patriot at this election is, by guile or otherwise, either to unseat or reject their Tory candidate.”
What was so fascinating was the first words, “round here,” which is to say Hampstead, the leafy and very expensive borough in north London. Hare says he lives there “because it’s delicious watching American bankers go broke,” but if his personal acquaintances include few of those bankers, I doubt it includes many proletarians either. I was reminded of Pauline Kael saying after the 1972 presidential election:
I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.
By contrast, Harris calls his column “Anywhere but Westminster” (or Hampstead, as it might be). He is a Labour supporter who comes from a northern working-class family, he doesn’t live in London, and he goes around the country talking to ordinary people, whom he doesn’t patronize whatever their politics. To follow his fascinating election diary, partly in video form, was to be given a hint about the strong performance of the UKIP and the success of the Tories.
It was long assumed that UKIP was a repository for disaffected, reactionary middle-class Tories, but it has now cut heavily into the Labour vote by appealing to another disaffected group, the white working class. UKIP may only have won one seat but, not having run second anywhere in 2010, it came second in no fewer than 120 seats this time, forty-four of them won by Labour. In the Yorkshire steel town of Sheffield, Labour managed to hold four of the five seats; and in three of those four, UKIP ran second.
But there was another indirect effect. One week before the election, Harris reported from Nuneaton (“home town of George ‘Middlemarch’ Eliot,” The Guardian helpfully explained), the seat that Labour had to win. There he found “one message”:
The Scots are always getting one over on the English, and some climactic Caledonian heist is now a very real prospect. Throughout the day, the same refrains repeatedly come back from people we meet: “They wanted self-rule for their country, now they want to poke their bloody noses in ours…Nicola Sturgeon’s after as much money as possible for Scotland, and I think they have a pretty good deal already…If the Scottish get in with Labour, we’re done for.”
On the eve of the election, a television crew from Channel 4 News was in Carlisle, in the far northwest of England, hard by Hadrian’s Wall. They found just the same as Harris had. Two people stopped in the street both said that they had voted Labour all their lives but were voting Tory this time, because they were frightened of the “Scot Nats.”
This is indeed Nicola Sturgeon’s election, with two great victories to her credit: her own party has swept Scotland; and she has helped to win the national election for the Tories.
None of the parties can contemplate the next few years with serenity. In his hour of victory Cameron ought to be chastened by the knowledge that fewer than four votes in ten were cast for his party, and less than a quarter of the whole electorate voted Tory. The overall Tory vote increased by only 0.08 percent since the last election, while Labour’s increased by 1.4 percent. But his party will not be chastened at all. The trouble with a parliamentary majority of twelve is that it leaves the opposition parties powerless but gives huge power to the prime minister’s own backbench MPs, who will always be threatening to rebel.
Many of the Tory MPs are excitedly scenting the raw meat of right-wing government. George Osborne will continue as chancellor, and continue his austerity policies even if they haven’t been much of a success so far even in reducing the deficit as he promised, let alone in addressing the underlying weakness of the British economy, with its low investment, low skills, low wages, and low productivity. Theresa May will continue as home secretary, with plans for new powers of surveillance by the state. Michael Gove is now justice secretary (he is not a lawyer and has no legal training), and intends to repeal the Human Rights Act of 1998.
Triumphant though he is, Cameron faces a problem. He has promised to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, after negotiating new terms for British membership. Angela Merkel and other European leaders want the British to stay, but it’s doubtful whether they can offer much beyond cosmetic changes, and there are five dozen Tory MPs who are determined to leave come what may.
The prostrate Lib Dems have been replaced as the third-largest party in the Commons by the SNP, whose MPs cheekily tried to crowd out Labour from the Opposition benches on the first day the new Parliament met. But Sturgeon—or Salmond, who has now returned to the Commons—has a tricky hand to play. Short of full independence, the SNP want enhanced devolution, with full fiscal powers to raise and spend money in Scotland. Since that must mean an end to the present large subsidy Scotland receives from England, Tory MPs are increasingly inclined to let them have what they want, and see how they get on.
For Labour, the immediate outlook is very bleak, and the party is in turmoil, with Miliband’s departure followed by the resignation of the leader of the Scottish Labour party, and the withdrawal of the favorite candidate to succeed as leader. The worst danger is for Labour to return to the internal feuding that so damaged the party in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1980s, and indeed, the last result had barely been declared before loud voices were heard denouncing Miliband, from his own party. Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s old consigliere and one of the architects of “New Labour,” was everywhere, demanding that Labour should shed any foolish leftist notions and return to Blairism. And Blair’s own name appeared above a column in The Observer, lamenting the defeat more in sorrow than in anger.
Doubtless Miliband was a poor leader who ran an inept campaign, but those who praise New Labour forget the legacy he was dealing with. Almost the turning point of the campaign was when the audience in Leeds rounded on Miliband, asking him to admit that the last Labour government overspent in the golden years before the economy crashed in 2008, and public finances with it—the Blair government, with Gordon Brown as chancellor, and Miliband as one of Brown’s henchmen.
And Blair seems quite unaware of just how low his repute has fallen, with the vast dark cloud of Iraq hanging over him. Robert Harris, now a novelist but once a political journalist, wrote derisively after the election:
When Miliband took over in September 2010 he declared: “The era of New Labour has passed. A new generation has taken over.” Well, yes, it certainly had passed—if by New Labour one means the ability to win elections.
Although Harris was fiercely critical of the Iraq war—see his roman à clef, The Ghost Writer (2007), with a thinly disguised Blair as the central character—he suggests that “Blair needs to be rehabilitated before the process of renewal can begin,” and that he should “make some sort of mea culpa” for the war. But since most people now recognize that the war was a shameful crime as well as a catastrophic blunder, waged on consciously mendacious claims, there is no apology Blair can offer that is neither hypocritical nor self-incriminating.
That same cloud hangs over so many American politicians, not least Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Far from those responsible for that great crime being rehabilitated by current politics, a generation may have to pass before we can recover.