Opinion

Guy Rundle
Britain’s election, the Tory majority and the lost Empire

In the tight backstreets of the seaside town of Ramsgate, Nigel Farage, the cartoonish, Toad Hall-ish leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), had run into trouble. It was Wednesday, May 6, the day before the British election, and Farage was having one last turn around the depressed Kent town he was hoping would bump him into parliament. But today he’d been given battle by Stop UKIP, coastal anarchists and unionists moved there for the cheap rents. “Racist! Xenophobe!” they yelled, as members of the ageing, perpetually angry local populace yelled back at them. It was all pretty mild – even if one of them did get punched by a UKIP supporter five minutes later – but it was one of the few really spectacular events in an election generally assessed to be programmed and stage-managed beyond anything Britons had seen.

UKIP had provided much of the anti-political high jinks, led by Farage, a pint-quaffing, chain-smoking former futures trader and ardent Thatcherite, who, promising to push the country out of the European Union, restrict immigration, protect the National Health Service and gut the BBC, had built a working-class base for what was really an “English First” party. Throughout the campaign, UKIP was polling at 12 per cent and aiming for half a dozen seats, maybe 10, in a hung parliament. Then it would force a minority Tory government to a rushed EU referendum, and force the proud United Kingdom out of the hated superstate. It was a simple plan, as easy as a stroll through the streets of Ramsgate.

Sadly for Farage, it met with the same success. The Tories were indeed the largest party, but they were also a majority. UKIP got its 12 per cent – but it gained the party only a single seat. The Conservative Party stormed to victory with 37 per cent of the vote, and 331 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, giving them a majority in their own right after five years of coalition. Their former Liberal-Democrat coalition partners were eviscerated, losing 50 of the 58 seats they won in 2010 to the Tories. Labour, in a manner shocking but not surprising to their supporters, lost 24 of their 256 seats, having expected to gain the same number. Thirty-five of those were lost to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which had a close-to-clean-sweep north of the border, taking 56 of 59 seats, leaving one each of the major parties, for breeding purposes.

If the campaign had been a little dull, the result was astonishing, ramifying endlessly. In the service of that, the SNP campaign was feisty and audacious, but it was nothing compared with the extraordinary and ruthless ferocity with which the Conservatives aided them, by going on the attack against “separatism” and the legitimacy of Scottish MPs altogether. Farage’s attempt to channel Englishness to political advantage failed because the Tories gazumped him. In doing so, they gained a majority – but did more than anyone has done in half a century to push Britain towards break-up. David Cameron is the first prime minister to win a majority off the back of minority government for a long time. But there’s an outside chance he may well be the last PM of the entity he was elected to hold together.

Doubtless, he and his party didn’t go into the election intending to do this. For the first two weeks of the campaign, which began with the polls dead level, Cameron and the Tories pushed a quiet line, emphasising “competence” and “leadership” and hoping that the Labour Party would self-destruct and its leader, Ed Miliband, come a cropper. Reasonable enough assumption: the party had moved mildly to the left, promising a freeze on energy prices, a ban on exploitative “zero-hours” work contracts and a crackdown on tax avoidance, all of which was attacked ferociously by the six of Britain’s nine national daily papers that are right wing. Those papers went for Miliband, too, the sometimes awkwardly odd-looking leader, who had beaten out his more charismatic and centrist brother David in a surprise result five years ago. But by the end of week two it was clear this wasn’t working. A few glitches aside, Labour sold its leader well and he came across as likeable and relaxed, far more “normal” than the puffy and pompous Eton-educated David Cameron. Labour’s policies appeared consistent and composed, whereas the Tories appeared to have gone retail, offering a rail-fare freeze one day, an inheritance tax giveaway the next. After a mad televised debate between all seven national parties, Cameron wasn’t rating well, and there was mild panic in Tory ranks.

Miliband has been no more than competent in the debate. The true winner had been Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, a young, short, red-haired woman who favoured red dresses throughout the campaign, giving her the appearance of a Molotov cocktail. With the SNP polling about 48 per cent, Sturgeon had the confidence to lay down the law to both parties as to how a hung parliament would proceed. The Tories took note, and in the ensuing weeks their central command, led by Australian veteran Lynton Crosby, made the election a referendum on the legitimacy of the SNP itself, and on any deal Labour might do with them to govern. London mayor Boris Johnson was released to campaign, and together he and Cameron focused all their energy on the horror of an SNP-dominated House of Commons.

The assault was breathtaking in its ferocity, and it did the job. Miliband was put onto the defensive as to how he would deal with the SNP. Would he trade away billions in grants? Would he agree to a second independence referendum, on the heels of the one Scots nationalists had lost 55-45 last year, the referendum they had said was a “once-in-a-generation” event? Labour could have taken the high road and said that of course in a hung parliament the SNP would have to be negotiated with by anyone. Instead, it took the low road and claimed not a word would pass between them, save on the floor of the house. It was an effective move. The world snooker championships, that addictive British pastime, were playing on the TV at the time, and proved no distraction for Labour supporters. Watching a stray red caught between the blue and the yellow seemed far too familiar somehow.

Effective, yes, but also an extraordinary thing for the “Conservative and Unionist” party to do. Despite the rhetoric about Red Ed, Labour remains a mild social democratic party, sharing about 80 per cent of its policies with the Tories. To win a single election against them, and satisfy their ravenous and reactionary backers in the City, the Tories were willing to test the union to destruction, effectively throwing the Scots out before they had left, on the basis of who they chose to vote for.

For many Scots watching this unfold, it was a clarifying and categorical event – their members would be coming to Westminster as interlopers, not representatives. In England, real hostility against Scots increased. In a BBC Question Time show, one London-based Scot, with real pain in his voice, talked of being abused by workmates who had previously been friendly. Talking to people at English hustings – candidates debates, which happen in their thousands across Britain – one heard the usual joshing remarks about Scots hardening into real resentment. They were “coming here to break up the country”, people said. The very use of the term “here” was instructive. In Scotland, SNP support climbed to nosebleed heights of 55 per cent, suggesting it would gain all 59 seats. The politics became increasingly radicalised. At a hustings in Glasgow’s north, in a community centre so poor that the damp, stained ceiling tiles were peeling off above the candidates, the audience erupted when the sitting, sedentary – and doomed – Labour MP John Robertson attempted to defend commitment to Britain’s nuclear-armed Trident submarine program. He was howled down by an audience who had more pressing concerns than foreign policy. But they were as one – as Scots they wanted nothing to do with mass death, wielded in the service of Empire. “Wouldn’t have been like this five years ago,” a Labour supporter remarked in the smoko break, when the entire gathering had simply transferred outside en masse. Down south, England was raging against the Scots but in a pro tem, resentful way. North of the border the Scots were raging, but in a more celebratory and affirmative fashion. Many years, perhaps decades, of doubt had been dissolved – the SNP was no longer the “tartan Tories” but a party to the left of Labour, worth supporting, and suddenly the union didn’t seem to matter anymore. At this meeting, I heard as one does after landing hard, the faint but momentous snap of bones breaking. This had happened and nothing that happened after really changed that. 

The future will be interesting, with Cameron’s first challenge a promised “in or out” referendum on EU membership, to be held before 2017. This, together with the restaged Culloden against the Scots, was sufficient to leave Nigel Farage and UKIP stranded. They had no chance to play an English Nationalist Party, because the Tories had become that – a falling-short one felt at Farage’s final event, a non-appearance at a Kent shopping centre, where he was due to call the card at the Mecca bingo club, and from which his press team scarpered, stranding a dozen journalists, left to drink margaritas from the nearby burrito bar. Ukippered, Nigel. 

David Cameron is no fool, but he is the leader of the Stupid Party, and I wonder if they have any idea what they have really done. This relentless nihilistic campaign against their own union is one that Churchill, Macmillan and, most likely, Thatcher, would not have waged. Forty years ago the Scottish Marxist Tom Nairn, in The Break-Up of Britain, argued that Britain would come apart, as the final act of the unravelling of Empire, through a left Scottish nationalism. The Tories have hurried that on by decades, using Nairn’s prophecy as policy. Do they understand that Britain, not England, is an essential pillar of the Atlantic alliance, the arch on which Western power rests? Clearly not, or they would not have shoved it over like the miniature Stonehenge Miliband had promised to erect at Number 10. An EU referendum in a year, possibly triggering a new Scottish referendum, which the nationalists will win? This is an extraordinary result, far beyond a Labour victory, and promising disaster for the Tories as well. The final-day stoush at Ramsgate has nothing on the battles that are to come.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "The lost Empire". Subscribe here.

Guy Rundle
is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.