The UK is heading for a general election next Thursday, and for once I'm on the edge of my seat because, per Hunter S. Thompson, the going got weird.
The overall electoral picture based on polling UK-wide is ambiguous. South of Scotland—meaning, in England and Wales—the classic two-party duopoly that collapsed during the 1970s, admitting the Liberal Democrats as a third minority force, has eroded further. We are seeing the Labour and Conservative parties polling in the low 30s. It is a racing certainty that neither party will be able to form a working majority, which requires 326 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats lost a lot of support from their soft-left base by going into coalition with the Conservatives, but their electoral heartlands—notably the south-west—are firm enough that while they will lose seats, they will still be a factor after the election; they're unlikely to return fewer than 15 MPs, although at the last election they peaked around 50.
Getting away from the traditional big three parties, the picture gets more interesting. The homophobic, racist, bigoted scumbags of UKIP (hey, I'm not going to hide my opinions here!) have picked up support haemorrhaging from the right wing of the Conservative party; polling has put them on up to 20%, but they're unlikely to return more than 2-6 MPs because their base is scattered across England. (Outside England they're polling as low as 2-4%, suggesting that they're very much an English nationalist party.) On the opposite pole, the Green party is polling in the 5-10% range, and might pick up an extra MP, taking them to 2 seats. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (who are just as barkingly xenophobic as UKIP) are also set to return a handful of MPs.
And then there's Scotland.
On September 18th last year, we were offered a simple ballot: "should Scotland become an independent country?" 45% of the electorate voted "yes", 55% voted "no", and the turn-out was an eye-popping 87%, so you might think the issue was settled. Indeed, some folks apparently did so—notably Prime Minister David Cameron, who walked back the Scotophillic rhetoric on September 19th with his English Votes for English Laws speech and thereby poured gasoline on the embers of the previous day's fire. Well, the issue clearly isn't settled—and the vote on May 7th is going to up-end the Parliamentary apple cart in a manner that hasn't happened since the Irish Parliamentary Party's showing in 1885. The Labour party was traditionally the party of government in Scotland; so much so that the SNP's victories in forming a minority government in 2008 and a majority one in 2011 were epochal upsets. But worse is happening now. In the past six months, Labour support has collapsed in opinion polls asking about electoral intentions. The SNP are now leading the polls by 34 points with a possible 54% share of the vote—enough in this FPTP electoral system to give them every seat in Scotland.
Nobody's quite sure why this is happening, but one possibility is simply that the voters who were terrorized by the "project fear" anti-independence campaign are now punishing Labour for campaigning hand-in-hand with the hated Conservatives. Polling suggests a very high turnout for the 2015 election—up to 80% of those polled say they intend to vote—and if the "yes" voters who were previously Labour supporters simply switch sides and vote SNP this would account for most of the huge swing.
Even if the most recent polling is wrong and we apply traditional weightings to the Scottish poll results, the SNP aren't going to win fewer than 40 seats in Westminster—almost certainly making them the third largest party and, traditionally, the most plausible coalition partner for one of the major parties. If the most extreme outcome happens, the SNP could have 57 seats, effectively blocking any other party configuration from forming a government except for a Conservative/Labour coalition.
A Conservative/Labour coalition just isn't conceivable.
While such a hypothetical chimera would deliver a stonking great parliamentary majority, it would be fundamentally unstable. The Conservatives are seeing their base eroded from the right, by UKIP (who are also cannibalizing the traditional hard-right/neofascist base of the BNP). And on the left, the Green Party is positioning itself as a modern social democratic grouping with a strong emphasis on human rights and environmental conservation. (Full disclosure: I am a member of, and voted by post for, the Scottish Green Party. This is a separate party from the English/Welsh Greens, with distinct policy differences in some areas—for one thing, it's also pro-independence.) I believe that a Lab/Con coalition would rapidly haemorrhage MPs from both parties, either joining the smaller fringe parties or sitting as separate party rumps. It would also devastate both parties' prospects in the next election as large numbers of their core voters are motivated by tribal loyalty defined in opposition to the other side's voters.
On the other hand ...
For the past few weeks we've seen the Conservatives use the SNP as a stick to beat Labour with in England ("if you vote Labour, you're letting Alex Salmond run England!"), and the Labour party use the SNP as a stick to beat the Conservatives with in Scotland ("if you vote SNP you're letting the Tories run Scotland!"). Both UK-wide parties are committed to the Union of Kingdoms, and have announced that they will not enter a coalition with the SNP under any circumstances. However, their scaremongering tactics are profoundly corrosive to the idea of a parlaimentary union of formerly independent states—it's worth noting that Scotland and England merged their parliaments voluntarily rather than as the result of war and conquest (although to be fair the Scottish government's alternative was to declare bankruptcy). By setting up a false polarization between Scottish and English interests within the UK, both major parties are guilty of weakening the glue that holds the nations together. The 45% turn-out for independence last September is a sign of how dangerously brittle the glue has become: and the EVEL backlash among Conservatives post-September weakened it further.
Let's look at the underlying picture in Scotland.
To understand the roots of the England/Scotland argument, you need to realize that it's all about money. Or rather, about how the money is divided up. The Barnett Formula "is a mechanism used by the Treasury in the United Kingdom to automatically adjust the amounts of public expenditure allocated to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to reflect changes in spending levels allocated to public services in England, England and Wales or Great Britain, as appropriate." It's basically a short-term kluge from 1978 ... that has persisted for nearly 40 years.
English partisan voters resent it because it allocates a little bit more money per capita to Scotland than to England. (Scotland has a lower population density than England, so faces higher infrastructure costs in providing services in outlying regions such as the highlands and islands.) Scottish partisan voters resent it because it allocates a lot less money per capita to Scotland than to England if you take into account the amount of gross revenue raised in Scotland from taxation—Scotland has an oil industry and England doesn't.
So nobody likes the arrangement, but like democracy in general, it's better than the alternatives. But we have, since 2010, had a government in Westminster that is in some ways the most politically radical since Thatcher. The outgoing coalition was noteworthy for its support of austerity policies in pursuit of deficit reduction long after everybody else realized that this was nuts. Then they flipped to stimulus spending—on private sector crony projects seemingly intended to funnel tax revenue to rentier corporations. They finished selling off the Air Traffic Control system, privatised the Post Office, outsourced the Coast Guard search and rescue helicopters, are working on the Highways Agency, and have been kite-flying about selling off the Fire Service under George Osborne.)
Scotland, with inherently higher infrastructure operating costs than England, is going to feel the pain disproportionately in this scenario. So there's strong resistance to public spending cuts in Scotland, and this points to an intrinsically higher level of support for social services than is electorally popular in England. Hence the trivial political observation that Scottish voters lean to the left relative to English voters: it's self-interest at work.
We also see differences in the Scottish attitude to immigrants. A large minority of English voters (egged on by their media) are fantastically xenophobic this decade—expressions of anti-immigrant sentiment that were the preserve of neo-Nazis in the 1970s are common currency among English voters and media pundits today. However, in Scotland there's a general consensus that the shutdown on immigration is harming the nation—Scotland has different demographic issues from England, and actually needs the inputs of skilled immigrant labour that the English are rejecting.
Finally, there's a touchstone of the 1980s left in the UK—nuclear disarmament—that has somehow become a raw political issue in Scotland. The UK's Trident force submarines operate out of Faslane, about 25 miles from the centre of Glasgow—Scotland's largest city. There's considerable ill-will about this, because it's perceived as making Glasgow a strategic nuclear target and putting it at risk of a nuclear accident, all on the Scottish taxpayer's tab. Viewed as an independent country Scotland would have no need for a nuclear deterrent and no more desire for a strategic global military reach than Ireland or Norway. Moreover, Trident is a potent reminder of the undead spectre of Margaret Thatcher, who is somewhere between rabies and HIV in the popularity stakes in Scotland.
These are the wedges threatening to split the union apart. It appears inevitable that Scotland's voters will not willingly accommodate a conservative policy platform dictated by voters in England—and a Labour party that has triangulated on the centre-right since Tony Blair severed it from its previous socialist roots in 1994 is increasingly oriented towards the interests of English voters.
What happens On May 8th?
I honestly have no idea, and anyone who tells you they know what's going to happen is lying.
However, in broad terms there are two paths that a government—whether a minority administration supported by outsiders on a confidence-and-supply basis, or a formal coalition with a working majority—can take.
They can attempt to save the union. To do this, they will need to address the fundamental need for constitutional reform before tackling the Barnett formula. The best outcome would be wholesale root-and-branch reform—abolition of the House of Lords, reconstitution of the House of Commons as a federal government with a new electoral system, establishment of a fully devolved English Parliament (sitting separately), and full devolution—Devo Max—for Scotland. This would leave the UK as a federal state similar to Germany, with semi-independent states and the central government handling only overall defense, foreign, and macro-scale fiscal issues.
Unfortunately any such solution will require the House of Commons to voluntarily relinquish a shitpile of centralized power that they have collectively hoarded as jealously as any dragon. And I don't see the existing Westminster establishment agreeing to do that until they find themselves teetering on the edge of a constitutional abyss—and maybe not even then.
The alternative is that the festering resentment caused by EVEL and revanchist Scottish nationalism will continue to build. Prognosis if this happens: an SNP landslide in the Holyrood parliament in 2016, and another independence referendum with a clear mandate for independence some time before 2020. If we don't see constitutional reform on the agenda within the lifetime of the next parliament, the UK as an entity will not make it to 2025.