So that’s it then. The Scottish Nationalists won is Scotland, and the English Nationalists won in England.
This is not a good result.
From my (slightly detached) position, it does feel a lot like two elections were contested – one in Scotland and one in England and Wales – and they have returned very different results. Scotland has, in effect, voted against the London parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) leaving the SNP to mop up as the only remaining alternative. In England and Wales, on the other hand, the electorate appears to have taken leave of their collective senses and fallen, frankly divisive, rhetoric coming out of the Conservative campaign.
So, two elections, two results, and an overall majority for the Conservatives. The phrase “May you live in interesting times” purports to be a translation of a Chinese curse. While no actual Chinese source has actually been produced, I do think that the UK is about to go through some very interesting times indeed.
To start with the Conservatives, David Cameron is not a strong leader and the Conservative Party is not a one-nation party. Indeed, for a long time I have felt that the main problem with the Conservative party is that it counts very few actual conservatives among its members. Let me digress for a moment to justify that assertion…
It used to be that Conservatism in the UK was a change-resistant but essentially pragmatic philosophy, best summed up by this quote from Edmund Burke:
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you
have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
Note the assumption that the great and the good will come together and agree what is best for the nation.
In the 1980s, the traditional/Burkian/one-nation Tories were marginalised as “wets” and steadily pushed out of the party, to be replaced by a harder, more ideologically Libertarian and more English cadre of MPs and members. In the 1950s, the Tories were winning slightly more votes than Labour in Scotland. In the 1960s, Labour were winning slightly more votes than the Tories in Scotland. In the 1970s, the Tory vote in Scotland dipped slightly and in the 1980s, the Tories decided that Scotland didn’t matter and let their share of the vote plummet.
And now, all (or nearly all) of the one-nation Tories are gone, and the party that has been elected is an economically ideological English nationalist party.
It may well be true that the English are an instinctively conservative nation. The problem is that the Conservatives are no longer an instinctively conservative party.
Digression over, let me try to get back to the point.
David Cameron has made a career of not really standing for anything and he gets away with this because he does have a good sense of what people want to hear and an unscrupulous willingness to say it. We saw this when he was campaigning for the leadership for the Conservative party – his commitment to leave the mainstream centre-right grouping in in the European Parliament was classic Cameronism. It was a purely tactical response to the fact that David Davis was – at that time – more popular among anti-EU Tories. It was also an entirely short-term response that led, in the longer term, to a more isolated Conservative party in the European Parliament and a more isolated Britain in the EU.
And now this man, who has spent the best part of a decade annoying other EU heads of government with his infantile behaviour, thinks that he can renegotiate some (vague, unspecified) parts of the UK’s EU treaties.
What is the French for “Go stuff yourself”?
I’d be laughing now if it wasn’t for the fact that Cameron has also promised to hold an in-out referendum on the basis of his fantasy negotiations.
I don’t think that Cameron is going to get anywhere when he attempts to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU. And, truth be told, I don’t think Cameron expects to achieve anything either. He was worried about both UKIP and his own right wing and has committed himself to a disastrous course of action in order to stave off a short term threat to his leadership. I don’t know whether he is still worried about UKIP – this was always a bubble that was bound to burst – but he now has nothing to shield himself from the hard-right, English nationalist elements in his own party.
Even if he did come back with a collection of concessions, nothing will be good enough for the anti-EU parts of his own party (which is most of them), and none of this will be good enough for the more rabid parts of the press (which, in circulation terms, is most of them). Then his much vaunted referendum comes around, and I think the result will probably prove to be quite predictable.
In short, Cameron’s weakness as a leader will open the way for his backbenchers to drive the UK out of the EU.