Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence.
Under the banner “Better Together,” the British media and political establishment campaigned to keep the United Kingdom united. They won that battle: Scots voted against independence 55 to 45 percent. But as the entire British electorate goes to the polls to choose a new Parliament on May 7, it is clear that the political establishment has lost the war—and not just in Scotland.
These elections, more than any in over a century, reveal an electoral landscape so fractured by region and party allegiance that the political class barely seems able to keep it together. In reality, there are four or five separate elections taking place, rendering British politics more volatile and unpredictable than at any time in recent memory.
In the past, you could reasonably rely on one of two outcomes for any British election: a Labour government or a Conservative (Tory) one. Smaller parties, like the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the Liberal Party, and the Welsh nationalist party (Plaid Cymru), could look forward only to a handful of seats in their strongholds. Thanks to Britain’s winner-take-all system, that basic Labour/Tory duopoly persisted throughout the postwar era: Between them, in 1951, they shared 96 percent of the vote.
But as Labour first drifted and then stampeded to the right—abandoning its commitment to unions, undermining the welfare state, presiding over growing inequality, and then bombing anywhere the United States demanded—the party lost a significant element of its core support. And as the Conservatives, in a struggle that pitted the traditional and patriotic against the modern and global, tore themselves apart over Britain’s relationship with the European Union, many of their most loyal voters also went their own way.
These changes both reflected and responded to real developments in British society and beyond. The end of empire, postcolonial and then European migration, neoliberal globalization, the decline of the manufacturing and trade unions, the growth of the service sector, the creation of the European Union—all of this forced a reckoning with the postwar certainties that had created two-party dominance. As just one example of how much the country has been transformed, Indian restaurants (which, incidentally, make the nation’s favorite food) employ more people than shipbuilding, coal, iron, and steel—once the bulwarks of the organized working class—put together. The United Kingdom is not what it was; we shouldn’t be too surprised if the political culture isn’t either.