Here in Britain, we cling to many habits that have long outlived their relevance or utility, not least the notion that an electoral campaign runs for only the three weeks prior to the Parliamentary General Election. We used to shake our heads in feigned wonder when we noted that U.S. White House campaigns seemed to begin the day after a new president’s Inaugural (or maybe even before then); the notion of primaries, well over a year before polling, appeared strange to your average Brit.
We can’t say any of this anymore. We have had, since 2011, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, providing for five-year fixed terms, so we have known about the date of our forthcoming General Election for over three years. Serving Prime Ministers do not have the latitude they once had to call a sudden election; before 2011 one could be called at three weeks’ notice, entailing a short, sharp campaign. Hence, the 2015 campaign has been under way for many months. The parties have been in campaign mode, one way or another, for ages. Some observers call it the longest election in living memory.
Officially, it all began on March 30 with another piece of artificial ceremony as Prime Minister David Cameron went to Buckingham Palace for his final audience with Elizabeth II, following the dissolution of parliament the previous midnight. He was trailed soon afterwards by Lib. Dem. leader Nick Clegg, the hapless Deputy P.M. in the coalition. Few commentators could resist imagining Her Maj’s words to him: “One doesn’t suppose that we’ll be meeting again, Mr.Clegg …”
Another prominent feature early in this campaign has been the participation of numerous parties. We Brits remain wed to the idea that we have a two-party system; that a government will be formed (technically, one or other leader will be called to the palace to “kiss hands”—another anachronism) by the leader of one or the other. Brits do not therefore elect their Prime Ministers. Early polling suggests that no party can win a working majority of seats. The Tories have lost voters to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Labour, under Ed Milliband, are facing a dramatic loss of votes, particularly in Scotland, reducing their chances of a parliamentary majority. The Greens, the Welsh Nationalists and the Northern Ireland parties are all in the mix too. Another coalition looks likely. Those with the best seats in the House, one may say, are the Scottish Nationalists who could end up holding the balance of power if there is a hung parliament.
The Scottish Nationalists look set to win the most Westminster seats ever. Polls suggest a 15 to 20 percent lead over Labour, taking even 50 of the 59 Scottish seats; by all measures, it’s looking catastrophic for Labour. The resurgent SNP is brimming over with confidence. Their new leader, First Minister in the Edinburgh parliament Nicola Sturgeon, enjoys huge support and has yet to put a foot wrong. They do not look like a party that lost a historic referendum less than a year ago. Their registered party membership has more than tripled since September 2014; they are now the third-biggest party, by membership numbers, in the whole United Kingdom. The unionist promises, intended to secure a No vote, have been rumbled, driving many voters to the Nationalists. To the losers the spoils.
But this is a U.K. election, not a Scottish referendum re-run. The big difference is that independence for Scotland is not at stake on May 7 although it may well be a bellwether for an increasingly likely future second referendum. It is precisely about the United Kingdom as it is now. The SNP has clearly stated that it will have nothing to do with propping up any Tory government at Westminster. Independence was the big idea last September; this May, their cynosure is the balance of power at Westminster. The Nationalists say they are pushing for the best deal for Scotland, which include, at least, prevention of the renewal of Clyde-based Trident nuclear weapons and a different approach to austerity policies and public spending cuts. Labour, of whom it used to be said that you could weigh their votes, not count them, know that their electoral future could depend on doing a post-election deal with the nationalists.
Alarming reports have issued in recent weeks about the physical state of the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament. It’s another elderly institution that’s losing utility. Billions may have to be spent to repair it.
The Nationalists could effect far worse and longer-lasting damage on May 7th.