Cameron pulls off a surprise win: What now for Europe and Scotland?

David Cameron’s startling victory in the UK’s general election was the result of competing nationalist sentiments. It puts a question mark over the state of two unions: the European Union, and the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Nationalist feelings helped Cameron to win in England and Wales, and nationalist feeling resulted in a spectacular triumph for the Scottish National Party in Scotland. Last night saw the political birth of the Dis-United Kingdom. The shock waves are likely to be felt for years to come.

Against all predictions, Cameron’s Conservatives took 37% of the national vote and won just enough parliamentary seats to form a government without another coalition. David Cameron held off the threat from the outright English nationalists of the UK Independence Party, but he did so in large part by playing the role of the patriotic Englishman himself. His election night dinner was, of course, a beef pie.

The result means that the coalition known as the Conservative Party is where the negotiations will take place. Cameron’s very slender majority hands more power to the dozens of anti-European Conservative MPs. Now that the Conservatives have dispensed with their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, the pro-European forces within the government are virtually non-existent. Cameron will certainly deliver the promised 2017 ‘in or out’ referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right now, you’d be a fool to bet that the Brits will vote to remain tied to Brussels.

Meanwhile, north of Hadrian’s Wall, the Scottish National Party (SNP) virtually swept the other parties out of Scotland, transforming the political geography of the country. Before last night, the SNP held six seats out of 59 in Scotland: today they have 56. Labour, who started the night with 41 Scottish MPs, now have just one. This is the equivalent of the Republicans being banished from the Wyoming state legislature. The British Ambassador to the United States knew what he was doing when he welcomed guests to his election night party with a pair of bagpipers.

For me, the most extraordinary moment of the night—and it was a night full of Alice-in-Wonderland moments – was watching Labour’s election chief Douglas Alexander—a tough, smart, veteran politician—lose his seat to Mhairi Black, a 20 year-old student, the youngest member of parliament since 1667, on a 27% swing. In her acceptance speech, she virtually apologized to Mr Alexander.

David Cameron will immediately introduce legislation to give Scotland more power over its own economic and social affairs. This will help a little to placate the Scots. But the biggest challenge will be the decision over the replacement of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which relies on submarines based in Scotland. Cameron is committed to a replacement. The SNP, who made much of the issue during the campaign, is bitterly opposed.

If the SNP repeat last night’s performance in 2016 in the elections to the Scottish Parliament, another referendum on independence will be unavoidable—and this time it will be won. Having rejected independence last year, the Scots seem to be having second, third and fourth thoughts.

If Cameron forces through Trident, the fracture will widen. If the 2017 referendum takes the UK out of the EU, but most Scots vote to stay in, it will become inoperable.

Labour had a horrific night in Scotland, but a very bad night everywhere, posting an even worse performance than Gordon Brown managed in 2010: and that was after 13 years of Labour government, in the midst of recession, and Brown being caught on tape castigating a loyal supporter as ‘that bigoted woman’. Last night, Brown’s old seat fell to the SNP.

The Liberal Democrats—who put Cameron into Downing Street—were almost wiped off the political map. Leader Nick Clegg, my former boss, survived as an MP—though not as party leader. The party’s MPs can now travel together in a large minivan. Of their 56 parliamentarians, only eight survived the cull. The lazy analysis is that they simply paid the price for coalition. In fact, a string of bad political decisions, especially the breaking of a promise on student tuition, fatally damaged the party’s brand. Cameron was fond of describing the Liberal Democrats as his ‘human shield’, absorbing much of the political damage for his unpopular decisions. The shield melted last night—but it did its job for Cameron.

Three political lessons can be drawn from the UK’s surprise result.

  • Leaders matter. In the old days of two strong parties turning out their core votes, leaders were not a decisive electoral factor. Those days are long gone. As fixed party loyalties dissolve, voters can be wooed or repelled by individual leaders. Ed Miliband was a very poor choice of leader for the Labour Party. Everyone knew it, all along, and yet the party somehow persuaded itself that it could win anyway. Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, is a superb communicator and ran a stunningly good campaign. The Conservatives won not because of their policies, or their organization, but because Cameron was seen as a strong leader.
  • Don’t trust the polls. Nobody—and I mean nobody—predicted a straight Conservative victory, however narrow. All the polls running up to the election suggested that Labour and the Conservatives were running neck and neck. Everyone was getting ready for another coalition, or cobbled-together deal of some kind. In part this is because British voters are making up their minds much later than in the past: with just three days to go, more than a quarter had yet to make up their mind. It looks like most of these ‘undecideds’ decided, in the end, for Cameron.
  • The political pendulum is not swinging to the left. After the recession, after austerity policies, amid rising inequality and stagnant living standards, Miliband and his team convinced themselves that the British people would almost automatically seek a more progressive and redistributive government. Not so. The hard truth is that in tough economic times, the vital political quality is competence (or the appearance of it), not compassion. It is too easy for liberals and progressives to look at economic trends and assume that a left-of-center pitch will be a winning one. They will have to work much harder than that.

Today is the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, the day when the Allies finally defeated Hitler’s Germany. Yesterday’s election in the UK was a reminder both of what was fought for, and of the modesty of the actual stakes. After all, only parliamentary seats were lost last night, not lives.