Integrity of the ‘United’ Kingdom is at stake in today’s elections

Take a walk on the streets in urban or rural Britain and you are hard put to spot signs of the elections. As political communication increasingly shifts to the digital arena, campaigning is visible mostly on television and social media than on the ground.

ht view Updated: May 06, 2015 21:37 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
UK,UK elections,Britain

Take a walk on the streets in urban or rural Britain and you are hard put to spot signs of the elections. As political communication increasingly shifts to the digital arena, campaigning is visible mostly on television and social media than on the ground. Posters, banners and loudspeakers are largely absent from the streets — even ‘public’ events of candidates are designed and micro-managed for television audiences. It is no surprise that many have called today’s election the most boring and disconnected in recent electoral history.

The disconnect is also evident from the other side: There is much ennui among the people and distrust with the plastic and rehearsed nature of politicians’ engagement with the public, let alone the litany of promises broken. This is likely to be reflected in support for what are called ‘insurgent’ parties that offer radical options to an angry electorate: The Scottish National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Green Party. All three made major gains during local and European elections in 2014, and are set to upset calculations of the Labour and Conservative parties.

But beneath the public cynicism is the reality that today promises to be the most momentous election in Britain since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher ousted Labour’s James Callaghan and set the stage for four consecutive victories for the Conservatives that changed Britain. As the democratic world celebrates 800 years of the Magna Carta — the 1215 document on which modern democracy is founded — Britain is beset with a raft of demands that threatens to alter its long-established position in the world order.

Much more is at stake in 2015, with the added key variable of a hung parliament: Will the election throw up a Conservative-led government that is committed to holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2017? Will the welfare state continue to shrink as it did during the last five years of a Tory-led government? Will the Scottish nationalists hold the balance of power in Westminster and eventually press for another referendum on Scotland’s independence? The next government may well preside over the further diminishing of Britain’s power and position in international relations.

Essentially, two broad political forces — centripetal and centrifugal — are vying for power. The Conservative Party is on the same page as the UK Independence Party; the former puts on a democratic veneer by offering an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU to a public angry at Brussels appropriating more and more powers from member-states, while exiting the EU is the latter’s raison d’etre. David Cameron once called the UKIP a party of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, but is now not averse to accepting its support in a post-poll alliance.

On the other side is Labour’s Ed Miliband, who presents the picture of a spider being caught in its own web. His party was the dominant force in Scotland until last year’s referendum, but now faces loss in most of the 59 parliamentary seats there to the SNP, which has extended unsolicited support to him to form the government. Leaving aside fears in England rooted in history and culture about the Scots coming to wield decisive influence in Westminster, Miliband risks the integrity of the country at some point by accepting the SNP’s support. He has insisted he will not strike any ‘deal’ with the SNP and would instead prefer to remain in the Opposition, but that is pre-election talk that may well be abandoned in the post-election scenario. To his credit, Miliband has resisted joining the ‘exit EU’ caravan, and has declared that he would work for Britain to remain an ‘outward-looking’ country.

For the moment, experts have been agonising over the options for a hung parliament. Britain had its first coalition government in 2010 after 1945, but civil servants now admit that the last five years were a ‘leap in the dark’, and that they made it up as they went along. Britain is yet to internalise the coalition era and recognise terms that are familiar in India: ‘outside support’, ‘common minimum programme’, ‘steering committee’ — or even a ‘government on daily wages’, which is one of the options available to Labour, to accept SNP support on a vote-by-vote basis in the House of Commons.

In domestic politics, the Conservatives offer more of the same: Further shrinking of the welfare state and deeper public funding cuts to reduce the growing budget deficit. The Cameron government made swingeing cuts between 2010 and 2015 partly to deal with the ‘economic mess’ left behind by the previous Labour government, but now Cameron says more cuts are needed to ‘finish the job’ of balancing the books during the next parliament. Labour too is committed to austerity if it comes to power, but is seeking votes by promising to increase public funding by taxing the rich. The difference between the two parties is essentially between austerity-heavy (Conservative) and austerity-light (Labour) approaches.

What are the implications of the next government for India? There is growing uneasiness in Indian quarters that beneath the diplomatic smiles, ministerial ‘touristy’ visits and feel-good words, Britain has been looking at India only as a market for some years, without much progress on its demand to share technology, particularly in the aviation and defence sectors. As other countries step in and offer the technologies that India needs, there may soon be a time when Britain does not have much to offer unless it is more forthcoming soon. Both Cameron and Miliband have been gushing in their desire to work with the Narendra Modi government, but points of friction between the two countries are likely to remain, such as allowing anti-India forces to function and raise funds in Britain, and inaction on India’s demands for extradition of individuals such as Tiger Hanif, Ravi Shankaran and Raymond Varley.

First Published: May 06, 2015 21:28 IST