UK election: Fractured verdict has widened faultlines in Britain
The Conservatives may cobble together a government, but Theresa May’s future is in doubt. Even if she doesn’t go the David Cameron way, her political authority has been severely diminishedopinion Updated: Jun 10, 2017 12:42 IST
June is turning out to be the cruellest month for British prime ministers. Last June, in trying to put an end to the unending bickering over the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, David Cameron called a referendum he expected to win. He not only lost the vote but also his prime ministership. Now his successor Theresa May has done it again.
Thursday’s British election was an exercise in political audacity, aimed at seizing the moment and arming Prime Minister Theresa May with a political mandate to take the tough decisions that were necessary to negotiate Britain’s return to full national sovereignty. With the polls showing a 21-point lead of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in apparent disarray over Jeremy Corbyn’s sharp Left turn, the election was seen as a walkover when it was called in April. May cast herself as a second Margaret Thatcher, a “difficult” woman who could look the European leaders in the eye.
The gamble misfired horribly. Whereas the Conservative Party had a working majority before the dissolution, Britain is now confronted with a hung Parliament. The Conservatives won 43% of the vote — an increase of six per cent — but the collapse of Third Party votes ensured that Labour tailed by just two points, having witnessed a spectacular 10% increase in its popular vote. The Conservatives may cobble together a government with the support of the Ulster Unionists, but May’s future is in doubt. Even if she doesn’t go the Cameron way, her political authority has been severely diminished. By Friday morning, she was being labelled a loser and even mocked for her coldness, as opposed to Corbyn’s archaic socialist authenticity which many suddenly found endearing.
It is not merely May and, by implication, the Conservative Party that has been cut to size. The real big loser is Britain. At a time when the country needed clarity, direction and political resolve, it has voted for confusion, tentativeness and, perhaps, chaos. It may take another election within a year before the country begins the process of finding its feet again.
On the face of it, May’s decision to call a snap election — when she had no need to — was more than just an act of hubris. The Brexit vote had revealed deep fissures in British society between those who wanted to walk a cosmopolitan future and those who felt left out and unwanted. It indicated two alternative visions of the British future. There were those who saw Britain as a part of the larger European project and others who felt that a celebration of the country’s uniqueness was the way forward. Then there were the fissures over Scotland’s future in the UK and the social strains caused by decades of uncontrolled immigration. In seeking to secure a resounding mandate, May hoped to unite British society and confront an uncertain future out of the EU and face up to the new challenges posed by terrorism.
Far from cementing the cracks, the fractured verdict has widened the faultlines. Britain may take heart that the appetite for another referendum for Scottish independence has been diminished by the Scottish National Party’s setbacks. Some may even welcome the fact that Ulster Unionism that was increasingly being seen as a burden of history will now have to be reintegrated into the mainstream. Yet others may see hope in the fact that May has managed to restore a measure of Conservative support in the north of England, although this accretion did not result in seats for the party.
However, the other fissures have widened. The spectre of “two nations” that had alarmed the likes of Disraeli in the Victorian Age has resurfaced. The Conservatives are still the majority party of England, winning the support of the middle classes, farmers and the elderly. However, in urban Britain, particularly London and places populated by non-White Britons and the young, it is the radical alternative proffered by Corbyn’s Labour that has resonated. There is a sharp rupture between those who prefer social stability, moderate taxation, tough law and order and Britishness and others who prefer a culture of entitlements, equity and multiculturalism. Young Britons are talking a different political language from their elders.
The schism is likely to have a direct bearing on both the Brexit negotiations and the strategies to cope with immigration and terrorism. There is an unresolved confusion over “hard” and “soft” Brexit that will be exploited by hard-nosed EU negotiators determined to show that it doesn’t pay to renege on the European project. Britain had begun talks with non-EU partners, including India, over a post-Brexit future. Now these may lose their urgency and await a clarity of purpose in Whitehall.
For the moment, the UK appears to be on crutches. Maybe not for long but even a short-term sickness is damaging.
Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal