British identity crisis likely to limit foreign role
Whatever the results of May 7th’s parliamentary elections, changing voting patterns linked to questions of British identity and Britain’s role in the world will result in a weak government unable to implement an ambitious foreign policy agenda.
The British electoral system, known as First Past the Post (FPTP), has traditionally returned governments with strong majorities able to implement clear foreign policy agendas. Under FPTP, parliamentarians represent electoral constituencies where they only need a plurality of the vote to win, meaning that small changes in national support for one of the two major parties has translated into huge changes in the number of seats they control in Parliament.
In the 1997 election, for example, Labour won 43% of the popular vote, but 63% of parliamentary seats. The result of clear Parliamentary majorities was 13 years of strong Labour government with a clear foreign policy agenda marked, among other things, by British military involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the parliamentary election of 2010, however, FPTP has stopped producing clear Parliamentary majorities. As a result, the party with the largest share of the vote must enter into a coalition in order to govern. Robin Niblett, director of foreign policy think-tank Chatham House, noted that this new status quo is not going to change: “Structurally, I don’t think the UK is going to return to a two party system for the next 15 to 20 years and that’s as far forward as I can see.”
Moreover, Niblett observes, the new arrangement of multi-party government will make an ambitious foreign policy difficult to implement.
“The smaller parties need to make sure that they don’t lose their identity and fairly easy places to do that are on foreign policy. Those countries that have been able to rely on Britain serving as a trustworthy, reliable number two to the United States [will find that] very difficult in the future.”
Indeed, the effects coalition government on British foreign policy already has occurred. In the summer of 2013 the governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition narrowly lost a vote authorising military action against Syria in the wake of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Had the Conservative Party enjoyed a majority in Parliament, it would likely have won such a vote, providing strong support to a potential U. S.-led intervention in Syria.
At the core of Britain’s new multi-party system lie two major questions of identity: Scottish independence and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Since losing the independence referendum last year, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has enjoyed a surge in support in Scotland, at the expense of Labour. The issue of independence has not gone away and will have a major impact .
A recent Ipsos MORI poll predicted that Labour, which has traditionally dominated in Scotland, will lose all 41 of its Parliamentary seats there to the SNP. Without its Scottish seats, it is virtually impossible for Labour to form a majority government.
Similarly, the Conservative party has been crippled by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose raison d’être is for Britain to leave the European Union. UKIP regularly polls higher than the Liberal Democrats, making it the third largest party in Britain in terms of the popular vote. The loss of Conservative voters to UKIP is also unlikely to be reversed, says Niblett.
“I think the fragmentation of the Conservative Party’s hold on the centre right of the country will be very difficult to put back together again because UKIP voters don’t associate themselves with what they think the Conservative Party has become…simply to say I think we are in a more multi-party system.”
With both major parties constrained by identity politics it is difficult to see Britain returning to the decisive foreign policy that characterised the premiership of Tony Blair. Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour has not committed to holding a referendum on British membership of the European Union. Nevertheless, the question of a British exit from the EU , dubbed “Brexit,” is likely to arise whoever wins the election, says Niblett.
“[Labour leader] Ed Miliband has promised an in-out referendum, he’s just put tougher conditions and at some point in my opinion those conditions are going to come to pass.” Miliband has said he will hold a referendum if the EU approves a new treaty that gives more power to Brussels.
Even were the Conservatives to win the election and hold a referendum on British membership of the European Union, such an eventuality is unlikely to end the question of Britain’s place in the world. Indeed, Quentin Peel, an expert on European politics at Chatham House, warned that a Brexit could spell the end of Britain as a united country.
“If there were a danger of the English voting to leave Europe, the Scots will vote to leave the United Kingdom,” he says.