Last year's referendum result rejecting Scottish independence, and last month's national election
which re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron and gave his Conservative party an absolute majority in Parliament, might easily be taken as having disposed of controversies and stabilized the country. In fact, it's more likely that they were just the prelude to a new period of turmoil unprecedented in recent British history.
There are three issues likely to move onto the front burner in the next couple of years, and they're all interrelated:
1) The voting system
Britain is divided into many small constituencies each of which elects one member of Parliament (MP), similar to our Congressional districts. In the US, the democratic character of the system has been undermined by Republican state governments gerrymandering district boundaries so that, even though more overall votes are cast for Democrats, Republicans win a majority of House seats. Britain has a different problem. With several parties now winning significant numbers of votes -- the two traditional major parties (Conservative and Labour), the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party (UKIP, opposing Britain's membership in the European Union), and the Scottish nationalists (SNP) -- votes within a single constituency can be divided in so many ways that the top vote-getter still falls far short of an absolute majority, and many voters feel disenfranchised. A party can win many votes in absolute terms but still get few MPs if it failed to come first in many constituencies.
This is what happened last month. The Conservative party actually won only 37% of the total popular vote, but now holds an absolute majority in Parliament because its candidates came first among a hodgepodge of candidates in more than half the constituencies. The UKIP won 12% nationally, but ended up with only one MP out of the total of 650, because there was only one constituency where it came first. The Conservatives now claim a mandate to push forward
with their destructive austerity policies
even though 63% of voters rejected them. It's hard to see how this can fail to provoke a crisis of legitimacy
. Whether or not it does, with the vagaries of this electoral system now having doomed Britain to five more weary years of those policies
before it has its next chance to get rid of them, I'd expect to see increasing emigration of the young and the most capable, as has already been happening in southern Europe where similar policies have been imposed by the EU.
The SNP swept Scotland, winning 56 of the 59 constituencies there (though, again, its share of the actual popular vote was not as overwhelming as this suggests). So soon after Scottish voters' resounding rejection of independence last year, the SNP was careful to stress that a vote for it was not
a vote for another independence referendum. Instead, it emphasized its opposition to austerity, which is even more unpopular in Scotland than in the UK as a whole. On that platform, the party won a huge, stunning victory. And that victory is now meaningless. The Scots, like almost everyone, assumed that Labour and the Conservatives would each come somewhat short of 50% of Parliament seats and that the SNP could hold the balance of power. With the Conservatives holding an absolute majority, they can govern alone, no matter what any other party wants.
With the prospect of another five years of Conservative rule (something most Scots who voted against independence last year probably didn't think was likely), SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has now been hinting that another independence referendum might be merited after all
, especially if there is a "material change in circumstances". In addition, at the time of the referendum the British government made various promises to the Scots to entice them to stay in, and some now claim those promises were not kept
. The SNP will probably wait for the elections to Scotland's own local Parliament a year from now -- if its landslide is repeated there, its mandate will be strengthened.
In an amusing side story, a petition has been circulating
in the Labour-leaning northern part of England (in US terms, a heavily blue-collar, "rust belt" region) in support of also leaving the UK and joining Scotland if it separates. This isn't a serious proposal, but it suggests the depth of discontent with the Conservatives' win.
3) The European Union
Cameron has a plan for addressing widespread discontent with Britain's membership in the bureaucratic and domineering EU. He promised that, if re-elected, he would conduct tough negotiations with the EU leadership to get a better deal for Britain, then hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership. If the British people thought the new deal he got for them wasn't good enough, they could vote to leave.
In fact, like pretty much all establishment politicians in Europe (left or right), Cameron is a committed EU supporter and is unlikely to do anything that would create a serious chance of Britain leaving. The real purpose of the referendum part of the plan is to serve as a threat to hold over the EU leadership -- agree to my terms or my people will vote to leave. His assumption is that he'll get a good enough deal that the voters will choose to stay in (recent polling shows the "stay in" side comfortably ahead
, though it's unguessable what the respondents are assuming Cameron will be able to get in the negotiations). But the EU has been sounding unreceptive to Cameron's proposals, and if he can't get much out of them, he'll face a dilemma. Although he'll probably try to weasel out of holding the referendum if it looks like the people will vote to leave, much of his own party is "Euroskeptic"
and pressure to go ahead with the vote may prove irresistible. While the anti-EU UKIP has been plagued with far-right pandering
and extremist candidates
that threaten to brand it a fringe party
, there is a serious case for leaving the EU
, and sober people will make that case during a campaign. The "leave" side could well win.
And if the UK votes to leave the EU, then the UK will cease to exist. Sturgeon has made it clear
that a vote to leave the EU would be just the kind of "material change in circumstances" that would justify another referendum on Scottish independence. And since the EU is much more popular in Scotland than in England, the result would practically be a foregone conclusion. In fact, in this scenario I wouldn't be too surprised to see a wave of pro-independence activity in Wales as well, even though there's been little sign of this in the recent past.
These things matter. The UK is our closest ally. It's the world's seventh-largest economy. It has nuclear weapons and a major navy. Handling all the problems raised by splitting up the country would create years of distraction and introversion. The success of Scottish separatism would encourage other such movements all over Europe, creating a wave of pointless distractions from the real and pressing problems of austerity, economic stagnation, Russian expansionism, etc. I worry a little that it might even encourage secessionist lunacy in places like Texas, especially if (as seems likely) our own 2016 election produces a Democratic tsunami.
All this could have been avoided if the British electoral system had been set up in a fairer way, so that one party did not win the ability to govern alone with just 37% of the actual vote. However, it's too late to do anything about that now. Even if the system is reformed, the results of last month's election will stand. The next national election is scheduled for 2020. I'd give it at best a 50-50 chance that the land of my ancestors will still exist as a unified state by then.