U.K. Elections: Cameron Returned

CONSERVATIVE WIN. Prime Minister David Cameron.

British pundits, pollsters and commentators all got it comprehensively wrong. Even senior politicians could not believe what they were seeing, and not one of them dared to claim they had predicted this. As the particularly British ritual of vote-counts in drafty sports halls amid solemn victory confirmations unfolded on the night of May 7, exit polls that had seemed incredible were proved right. The Tories were securing a shock majority, confounding every single pre-election survey.

The British public on May 7 gave the Labour Party a stunning collapse and produced a disaster for the Liberal Democrats, delivering the government unexpectedly to a Conservative majority. Prime Minister David Cameron may now call 10 Downing Street home for another five years. The election produced a minor gain for the hard-right U.K. Independence Party, but besides the Tories the other big winner of the day was the Scottish Nationalist Party, reviving from a failed independence effort to a stunning rout of the Labour Party in Scotland.

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David Cameron may now form a government unhindered by the need to negotiate a coalition. In the days after the election, vanquished political leaders everywhere were falling on their swords. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party took just 232 seats, down from 258 in 2010. He resigned as party leader the morning after the vote. Former coalition partners in the previous administration, the Liberal Democrats, suffered a similar catastrophe, leading to the resignation of their leader, Nick Clegg. Just a few weeks ago the U.K.I.P. leader, Nigel Farage, believed that he might hold the balance of power in a new coalition government. Instead he tendered his resignation as leader, which was rejected.

In Scotland—in a historic obliteration of Labour—the S.N.P. won a breathtaking 56 seats out of 59 seats in the House of Commons. They had previously held only six seats. The Labour rout was complete. Even the senior Westminster politician Douglas Alexander, Labour campaign chief, was crushed by Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old S.N.P. candidate who has still to complete the final exams for her politics degree.

In the aftermath of the vote, the sense that the Union is fracturing cannot be ignored. England has voted Tory; Scotland has voted S.N.P.; Wales has voted Labour; and Northern Ireland has voted for the Democratic Unionist Party (D.U.P.). A pattern emerges of the U.K. nations taking very different directions and trajectories. Nowhere is that bifurcation more obvious than in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon’s National Party has displaced the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy.

For Labour, there will be an apportioning of blame for their massive disappointment, although Miliband in resigning took the liability “absolutely and totally” on himself. Their catastrophic collapse in Scotland will surely draw particular scrutiny.

And the vote suggests that it may not just be the United Kingdom on a path to fracturing.

The triumphant Tories will likely now press ahead with a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union. Meanwhile the Scottish Nationalists, providing the opposition to Tory rule that Labour used to assume, now need to think carefully about how they will use their dramatically improved numbers in the House of Commons.

Because of the Conservatives’ strong showing, the Scottish Nationalists will not now be able to derail Prime Minister Cameron’s plans, making their campaign pledges to oppose austerity and to resist the renewal of Trident nuclear missile deployment suddenly sound rather toothless. Cameron, unexpectedly buoyant, would nonetheless do well to talk to Sturgeon lest he look too triumphant and risk deepening what is bound to be a worsening sense of disenfranchisement in Scotland. That Scotland is now on an entirely different political trajectory from England is beyond doubt. This election result has not only astonished everyone but has raised many more questions than it answered.

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