Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Cameron and a case of Scotch

With Britain’s parliamentary elections ending in a surprise Conservative Party victory, the cohesion of the United Kingdom may now be threatened, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Power is like a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t” – Margaret Thatcher

“Britain needs a Labour Party that can rebuild after this defeat so we can have a government that stands up for working people,” Ed Miliband, the former leader of Britain’s defeated Labour Party, said at the party’s headquarters in London after announcing his resignation following a landslide Conservative Party victory.

“This election may go down as a collision of resurgent Scottish and resentful English nationalism,” lamented Philip Stephens in the Financial Times. “This is a precedent to be invoked by fiscal hawks and free marketeers for decades to come,” noted Janan Ganesh in the same issue of the paper. Britain is now “an ever more fragile union,” Stephens surmised.

It is difficult to imagine what former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher would have made of this week’s elections. “I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end,” she once boasted. Contemporary Conservatives appear to have followed in her footsteps, putting forward an austerity based election manifesto that seems to have appealed to the majority of British voters.

“Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides,” Thatcher also once observed. The British parties that sustained the most excruciating losses were those like Labour and the Liberal Democrats that paid no attention to her appraisal. The Conservatives heeded her admonition. 

Labour did well in London, however, and there was a rural/urban divide. Nevertheless, Labour’s encouraging results in some urban areas in England was not enough to prevent much soul-searching as far as Labour was concerned. “We have got to look deep into our souls, but we shouldn’t open our veins,” declared Harriet Harman, now acting leader of the party.

David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who was beaten to the job of leader of the Labour Party by his younger sibling in 2010, was critical of both his brother and former Labour Party leader Gordon Brown’s strategy.

They “allowed themselves to be portrayed as moving backwards from the principles of aspiration and inclusion that are the absolute heart of any successful progressive political project,” he told the BBC. Ed Balls, who would have been finance minister had Labour won, epitomised the depressed mood in the party, losing his seat in the elections. 

The Labour Party suffered a punishing defeat in Scotland, once a traditional Labour stronghold, losing all its seats to the Scottish National Party. However, the mauling was largely due to the Nationalists denouncing Labour’s “Red Ed” as working against the interests of the Scottish people.

The new Conservative Party cabinet announced after the elections has also raised eyebrows. “As the yoghurt pots say, they are all ‘0 per cent Lib Dem fat’,” said commentator Michael White in the newspaper the Guardian.

Gender and ethnicity came into play. “With five women in 1997, Tony Blair did better,” White mused. “Margaret Thatcher ruled for 11 years with just one woman, Oxford bluestocking Janet Young, in cabinet, and only for 21 months,” he recalled. 

Priti Patel, the descendant of Ugandan Asian refugees, replaces Esther McVeigh as employment secretary. Paul Boateng, son of a minister in former Ghana president Kwame Nkrumah’s last cabinet, was the first black cabinet member in 2002.

Gender and race do not top Cameron’s agenda, yet another British Asian, Sajid Javid,   was named business secretary. Other women retained high positions, such as home secretary Theresa May. Liz Truss and Amber Rudd are environment and energy secretaries, respectively. 

“The stunning success of the Scottish National Party threatens to reopen questions about the UK,” read a Financial Times editorial. “As the Conservatives revel in their unexpected triumph, they should recognise that victory opens an uncertain chapter for the United Kingdom,” the editorial elaborated.

While David Cameron is the man of the moment, “the Conservatives’ campaign was ungainly and sometimes muddled,” the paper argued.

The British elections also give a pointer to the future of British politics. Jim Murphy, leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, lost his seat, and shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander was beaten by a 20-year-old political novice, Mhairi Black, a Glasgow University student, who became the youngest-ever member of the British parliament. 

“The tectonic plates of Scottish politics have clearly shifted. Labour has been losing the trust of the people of Scotland for several years,” Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said. “It’s a very positive vote from an electorate that has been energised and electrified by the referendum process” on Scottish independence, an ecstatic former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond said, who won a seat in Westminster.

Nevertheless, it was the Liberal Democrats that faced the most humiliating near wipe-out defeat. “This is a very dark hour for our party,” said Liberal Democratic Party leader Nick Clegg. “But we cannot and will not allow liberal values to be extinguished overnight,” he added.

A tearful and ashen-faced Clegg has been the leader of the Liberal Democrats since 2007 and deputy prime minister since 2010. As a consolation, the Liberal Democrats clung on to eight seats, including the remote Orkney and Shetland Islands, an oil and gas-rich sub-arctic archipelago that is technically part of Scotland.

Other parties also suffered losses. Another casualty who also tendered his resignation was Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP). Ironically, UKIP’s popularity soared and no fewer than 3.7 million of the British electorate cast their votes in favour of the party, making it the third most popular political party in Britain ahead of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists.

Even so, UKIP secured only one seat in parliament, while the Scottish Nationalists garnered 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in Westminster. Farage lost his South Thanet seat.

Farage has since withdrawn his resignation as leader of UKIP, but where does the wider result now leave the UK? UKIP has pledged to fight for British electoral reform. How can a party that won nearly four million votes only secure a single seat in Westminster? Something is obviously wrong. Voters surely must have greater democratic representation.

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