The Surprising Results of the British Elections

4 MINS READMay 8, 2015 | 17:48 GMT
British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech outside Downing Street on May 8 in London. (CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech outside Downing Street on May 8 in London.

The official results of the May 7 British general elections were released May 8, with two winners and several losers. The biggest losers arguably were the pollsters, who generally predicted a close election with nearly equal numbers of seats going to the main contenders: the Conservative Party, or Tories, and the Labour Party. Such an outcome would have presaged extended coalition negotiations and continued uncertainty. Instead, the center-right Tories were a clear winner, gaining a majority that gives them sole charge of the country. This will end five years of coalition rule in which the Tories had to share power with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

The Scottish National Party was the second clear winner, taking all but three of the Scottish seats it contested. The party now holds 56 seats, compared to six previously. The swing in Scotland came at the expense of the center-left Labour Party, whose leader, Ed Miliband, has already resigned. Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also left his post following his party's loss of 49 seats (it now holds only eight). Beyond the tallies of the individual parties, however, the biggest election-day victors were the United Kingdom's two key divisive forces: nationalism and Euroskepticism.

The election gives the Tories their first majority since 1992. In theory, this puts more power in the hands of Prime Minister David Cameron, since he will no longer need to negotiate with a coalition partner. In practice, however, Cameron is less secure than he was before, for two reasons. The first is that the Tory majority is now slimmer than under the previous coalition government and, if lawmakers defect as they did in 2014, the party's number of seats could easily fall under that threshold. This means that every Tory lawmaker will have the power to hold the party ransom over the direction of its policies.

Second, Tories have a large grouping of hard-line Euroskeptic lawmakers who want to push the government to exit the European Union. In the previous government, the Liberal Democrats balanced out the power of this faction. This means that the 2017 "in/out referendum" on EU membership that Cameron promised in 2013 to placate Euroskeptic Tories will go ahead. The question now is whether the Tories will campaign to opt in or opt out of the European Union. Cameron said that if he is able to renegotiate the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe ahead of the referendum, he will support remaining in the bloc. The newly emboldened anti-EU Tories, however, will pressure Cameron to submit more extreme renegotiation proposals, making it harder for him to achieve a satisfactory result.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party's gains mirror the dramatic growth in its membership since the September 2014 referendum. While the party will not have the direct hand in government it might have had if the Labour Party had performed better, its 56 seats will give it the power to highlight Scottish concerns. The question of holding another referendum is unlikely to arise immediately because low oil prices would not support an independent Scotland. If oil prices rebound, however, the Scottish National Party will publicly rally against the illegitimacy of a Tory government presiding over Scotland with only one Tory seat north of the border. This will increase pressure for another plebiscite. The United Kingdom has seen the effects of a strong regional nationalist party in Parliament before, after the Irish Parliamentary Party won 63 seats in 1885. Though it took 35 years and World War I to gain Irish independence, the party eventually achieved its goal.

The strength of anti-EU sentiment in the election was also demonstrated in the success of UKIP, formerly the U.K. Independence Party. The party, however, ultimately emerged with little to show for its gains. The British electoral system tends to punish parties that have broad support but no regional strongholds. The anti-EU party won 14 percent of the English vote but only one seat. The improvement in UKIP's overall performance becomes clear when one studies individual seats: The party came in third in contests for 364 seats and second in 120 of them. In 2010, the party came in third four times and did not finish first or second in any contest. Party leader Nigel Farage failed to win his seat and resigned as previously promised, though he left the door open for a return later in the year. The fate of UKIP is hard to predict, since insurgent parties are traditionally brittle, and Farage has been the driving force behind its growth. The level of support for the party, however, demonstrates that there is public support for the UKIP platform. If the party can hold together, it will be well placed to continue its growth and take advantage of anti-EU sentiment.

Thus, for the next five years, it looks as if the raised voices of Tory Euroskeptics and Scottish nationalists will dominate Parliament. This will put pressure on Cameron's Cabinet to prepare for a potential British exit from Europe and to grant concessions to Scotland. These two sides will also bitterly disagree with each other. The Tory Euroskeptics will be seeking to promote solidarity within the United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party will, of course, oppose this. Moreover, Scotland is the United Kingdom's most pro-EU region — any move toward leaving the European Union will accelerate its independence plans. Though it has produced a majority, this election has set the stage for five years of division and disunion.

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