The Biggest Loser

I rarely stay on the same topic two weeks running, but what happened in the UK elections last Thursday was exceptional in a number of ways.

An angry political commentator protested Friday morning that the opinion polls had misled him profoundly, and as a consequence he had in turn sold his readers a bill of goods.

As I did—after all, eleven polls came up with a hung parliament, and converged around a 33-36% electoral vote for the two major parties. The exit polls were a straight reversal of this pattern, and the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown famously declared that if they were right, he would publicly eat his hat.

True to form, one of the British TV channels duly presented him with a chocolate hat, while simultaneously offering Alistair Campbell, Blair’s ex-spin doctor, a chocolate kilt.

The polls all had it right about Scotland, though—Nicola Sturgeon strenuously repeated in the hat-eating stage of the exit poll that she didn’t expect anything like the landslide victory the Scottish National Party finally obtained.

Labour voters in England got scared about the prospective alliance with the SNP and drifted to other parties, since the Labour defeat cannot be accounted for by the fifty-six seats lost in Scotland—the aggregate total is 232 + 56, or 288, thirty-five seats short of a majority.

It’s unlikely that votes went to the hat-eating LibDems because they also collapsed on election night. Some of the Labour vote may have gone to the Greens, and some found its way back to the Tories—in some policy areas, the two parties don’t differ much.

And of course the UK Independence Party lost votes to the Tories, playing a card which is known in Portuguese as voto util, the useful vote, to keep Labour out.

Cameron's elephants: a salmon, a sturgeon, and a referendum.

Cameron’s elephants: a salmon, a sturgeon, and a referendum.

Unfortunately the result of the UK 2015 general election is no harbinger of progress—three very large elephants sit in the room.

The first is the referendum on membership of the EU, otherwise known as brexit—I don’t know how many new words the UK press can come up with, but at least if Spain or Sweden leave we can call it sexit.

With a conservative majority in parliament, the Tory backbenchers will become vociferous about Europe, and Cameron can expect a mutiny or five if he comes in too pro-EU. The European Union, and in particular Germany and France, don’t have much patience left to negotiate with the UK, and no will to renegotiate treaties. The two-year lead-up to the referendum will be a period of substantial uncertainty, and both the pound and UK business will suffer.

The second, or Scottish, pachyderm is opposed to austerity, and will fight Tory policy-makers tooth and nail on outsourcing, cuts, and all social issues, with a clear bias north of the border. The members of parliament for the SNP cannot outvote the Tories, but they hold a particularly strong card: the possibility of a new referendum (the final jumbo) on Scottish independence.

The Scots are much less willing to leave the EU, and as the months roll by toward 2017, there is a very real possibility that the two key questions will end up wrapped together, at least in people’s minds: England and Wales leaving the EU while an independent Scotland stays in.

International analysts, particularly in the US, note Britain is looking increasingly inward, and see Cameron disengaged from foreign policy. It’s unquestionable that on key issues such as migration into Europe and the war in the Ukraine, the UK is playing a cameo role. The  election debates also highlighted the internal focus on employment and health—global issues were not on the radar.

Except immigration, of course.

In reality, ever since the 1970s I’ve seen foreign labor doing the work the British won’t do. Back then the Commonwealth was the ‘Great Satan’, with Enoch Powell railing in parliament about Indians and Pakistanis—somewhere in the mix refugees from Kenya and Uganda also materialized.

In the run-down area where I lived back then, a long row of terraced houses contained three distinct groups: immigrants from Asia or the West Indies; brothels; and students.

A decade later many of those Asians owned thriving businesses—not least the politically-incorrect ‘Pakishops’, which thrived on a triple-advantage business model: they stayed open late, sold alcohol, and were able to charge slightly higher prices.

I don’t believe the UK will leave the European Union, and I think the citizens of Europe, and particularly the British, don’t appreciate that a working model for Europe will take many decades to build—perhaps as long as the Hundred Years War.

People never think long-term, which is why elections are won; and by ignoring history, as the aphorism goes, we are condemned to repeat it.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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