June 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Disunited kingdom

By Guy Rundle
Disunited kingdom
A win for David Cameron and the Conservatives in the UK was inevitable

“Pull over here,” I told the driver of the black cab as I spotted a bottle shop. We were headed out of the tangle of London’s Piccadilly Circus to the boho-prosperous calm of Primrose Hill, an old haunt of threadbare leftists, now gone upmarket. It was 7 May, election night, and the centre was full of theatre crowds, people who neither knew nor cared.

Election night parties à la Don are fewer here. The vote is on a Thursday till 10 pm, and good numbers only start to flow after about 1 am, with count and coverage going all the way through to bleary breakfast. With the polls neck and neck, plus a surge by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the rise of the quixotic UK Independence Party (UKIP), one thing was certain: win, lose or draw for the left, there would be a hung parliament, and days, weeks of argy-bargy from which Labour’s bookish, diffident leader Ed Miliband would emerge triumphant.

In the bottle shop I bought a litre of Black Label, blended but smooth; that would take me through. Back in the cab, the driver turned round. “They’ve just released the exit polls. Reckon it’s a Tory win, they’ll get a majority.” When I arrived at the party, the poll was all over the TV, predicting 320-plus seats out of 650 for the Tories, in cooee of a majority. The final result was even better for them: 331, total control. Labour had lost 26 seats, and were down to 232, instead of the 20-plus gain forecast; the SNP had turned Scotland into a one-party state with 56 of 59 seats; and the Liberal Democrats, who had held to a five-year coalition keeping the Tories in power, had been eviscerated, losing 49 seats, now down to just 8.

“If this exit poll is right, I’ll publicly eat my hat,” said Lib Dem grandee Paddy Ashdown on the BBC at the start of the count. The next morning he demurred when given a real hat. Later, someone delivered a marzipan one to the studio, and he tucked in enthusiastically, which seems to miss the whole point of hat-eating, and is the sodding Lib Dems all over.

It was a grim night, as it rolled on. The Tories, gracious, treated it as no surprise at all, simply the order of things. So did we all, feeling that curious parallax of history. It became obvious in retrospect that what had seemed possible, even likely, was never going to happen. We’d been ignoring the numerous defects of Labour’s campaign. For weeks I’d been going up and down the country to hustings – candidates’ debates. As one dead-heat poll after another thudded into the papers, I heard the same thing from the half-dozen or so undecideds who had turned up to such events: “Well, I don’t know that Labour can be trusted on the economy”; “I just don’t know that Ed’s a leader”; “I wouldn’t want him in a room with Putin – only one of ’em would come out” (guffaw, guffaw).

The leadership criticism was tough, and had started to fade when Miliband did well in the one TV debate with Cameron (and all five other major party leaders) on 2 April. The Labour insider came across as focused and practical, compared to the increasingly pompous and blustering David Cameron. To their right stood UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, a chortling country-squire type, riding his hobbyhorse – the “surrender of our country to Brussels” – and aiming for six seats and the balance of power.

The Tories needed a new angle very badly, and they found it north of the border. Scottish Labour, constrained by Labour’s moderate overall pitch, in a land now furiously opposed to budget-cutting measures popular down south, lost the remains of their support to the SNP and its new young leader, flame-haired, red-dressed pocket rocket Nicola Sturgeon. When it became clear that Labour would only be able to govern with the support of the SNP, the Tories swung their guns that way and pounded the northern interlopers as essentially illegitimate in a parliament to which they were elected. The argument never made sense, but it didn’t need to. For the next three weeks, Labour’s main task was to try to convince a wavering English public that they would not be beholden to the SNP. It was an impossible task, and it quickly became surreal as, in one TV appearance after another, Miliband ruled out first a coalition, then a confidence-and-supply agreement, and finally any communication with the SNP at all, outside the actual floor of the Commons.

There were other reasons that the Labour campaign could not, and may never have been able to, triumph – such as unveiling a 3-metre stone plinth with election promises carved into it, in a car park in the faded English seaside town of Hastings. Standing before it on 2 May, Miliband, usually compared to Wallace, the claymation hero, looked uncannily like Woody of Toy Story fame. There was an audible thwock across the nation as Labour supporters slammed hand to face when the thing appeared on the six o’clock news.

By then, as it turned out, it didn’t matter. Internal polling by both sides, subsequently revealed, showed that the public polls had always been skew. Labour had been up against it from the start. Staggering out of the party into the grey morning, I took a look at a broad terrace that had been pointed out to me as the old Miliband family home, and thought of the old world, now vanished, decades gone, when the main question in Britain was how socialist it would be. Then I retched, and went to try to find a bus.

I’ve had some raw and dissatisfying walks-of-shame in London over the years, but this was something else. The result gave the Tories carte blanche, which meant no impasse, second election or voting reform. Not only a bad result, I thought, as London woke up to five more years of David Cameron, but also a boring one.

That soon proved to be another misjudgement. Cameron had won his one-party majority, but at a huge cost. What had transpired was remarkable: to head off the threat of UKIP, and of possible Tory-party splits, he had agreed to an in/out referendum on European Union membership, for sometime before 2017. It’s a vote he did not want, one that will pit the Tory party against itself, and consume the nation for a year or so, and that the pro-EU establishment of both right and left may actually lose.

It would be doubly disastrous now, following the Conservatives’ Lynton Crosby–led anti-SNP campaign to save the Union. Should the United Kingdom leave the EU, Scotland will demand or simply hold a new referendum, which the full-independence camp will most likely win – and then try to re-enter the EU. This election may have broken up a 400-year-old union.

Cameron has another fight on his hands, too: against the right of his party, for one, who will now demand a harder agenda, unconstrained by those damned Lib Dems. The gap between state power and society will be starker, and resistance more focused – from social movements at least. It’s all Cameron now. He broke it, he owns it. He will need to put on the marzipan hat of courage, and ride out on the hobbyhorse in all directions at once, in the cause of a Britain that – gaining his place in history – he may have already put beyond saving.

Guy Rundle
Guy Rundle is the global correspondent-at-large for Crikey. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Presidential Election and two Quarterly Essays, ‘The Opportunist’ and ‘Bipolar Nation’.

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