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2010 British Elections:
The changing face of Shakespeare’s England

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

- William Shakespeare, King Richard II

Shakespeare’s England is no longer uninfected, nor is it the envy of less happier lands. But it could still be the envy of less democratic lands. The five days it took for a new government to emerge from the hung parliament elected by a not so happy breed of voters, is not a sign of democratic shortcoming or political instability. On the contrary, it was a demonstration of how a parliamentary system could and should work even when a cranky electorate tells its political parties ‘a plague on all your houses’. Belgium took 196 days to form a government after the election in 1997, while the Dutch hold the record for the longest interval of 208 days in 1977. Sri Lanka has a government that is electorally over-endorsed but democratically underwhelming.

The British electorate gave the Conservative Party 97 more seats than what they had going into the election, the Party’s biggest gain in history, but its 306 seats total fell short of the required majority of 326 seats in the 650 seats House of Commons. The ruling Labour Party lost 91 seats and came a distant second at 258 seats. The Liberal Democrats, touted by everyone to do well after impressive performances by its leader Nick Clegg in the national TV debates, disappointingly came five seats fewer than last time at 57. Bringing up the Commons rump are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (8), Scottish Nationalist Party (6), and others (14) who include the first Green Party MP from Brighton in England and four non-participating republicans from Northern Ireland.

Disappearing Age

With no party securing a clear majority, convention allowed the incumbent Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown the first chance to form the new government after the election. He rightly chose to remain as caretaker Prime Minister and gave the opportunity to Conservative Leader David Cameron to form a new government with the support of the third party, Liberal Democrats. Brown and his Labour front liners did not hide the fact they were having parallel talks with Liberal Democrats to form a Labour-Lib-Dem coalition, one that the pro-Tory tabloids pounced on as the "coalition of the losers". Gordon Brown gave his best shot for a Labour-Liberal coalition by stepping down as Labour leader and offering to bring in immediate legislation to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system with an Alternative Vote system to enable the distribution of seats in the House of Commons in proportion to the distribution of the popular vote between parties.

Under Britain’s longstanding first-past-the post system while the Tories won 47% of the seats with 36% of the votes, and Labour 39% of the seats with 29% of the votes, the Liberal Democrats won only 8.8% of the seats despite winning 22% of the votes. Unlike the Conservatives and the Labour, the Liberal Democrats do not have geographical concentrations of votes, so their nationwide support does not translate into seats under the first-past-the-post system. Transforming the electoral system is the biggest priority of the Liberal Democrats, and they were not prepared to enter into a coalition without commitment to changing the electoral system.

Gordon Brown’s promise of a new law forced David Cameron, after hesitating on commitment to implementing electoral reform, to commit to a national referendum on the Alternative vote system. That clinched the deal for the Liberal-Conservative coalition and ruled out the alternative Labour-Liberal coalition. Prime Minister Brown resigned with an impassioned parting speech which left commentators wondering why he could not have come across to the public with the same passion and empathy during his tenure as PM which was a public-relations disaster despite his strong performances during the global economic recession.

Gordon Brown is a far more substantial politician than Tony Blair, David Cameron or Nick Clegg, but that was not enough to be a successful Prime Minister in an age when appearance and media savvy carries lot more purchase than substance. Tony Blair was the consummate stage performer and David Cameron could easily be called the Tory Blair. He has fancied himself to be as much. Nick Clegg is the Liberal Democratic clone of both Blair and Cameron. Brown belonged to the disappearing age in which British politics was more a function of combative ideology, fierce party loyalty and competing programs but predicated on a broad consensus about the relationship between state and society.

Postwar British politics was characterized by the underlying agreement between Conservatives and Labour about the prominent role of government and social welfare priorities. Margaret Thatcher was perhaps the last successful politician of that era taking libertarian advantage of the national angst, if not anger, at big government and big labour. John Major was a decade too soon for the new age and Gordon Brown lasted a decade too long for the old age.

He was also undone by Tony Blair’s good looks and good luck. Blair was a fortuitous successor to the more substantial John Smith, a Scotsman like Gordon Brown, who died of a sudden heart attack. The ensuing agreement between Blair and Brown under which Blair was supposed to step down after two terms has been the subject of much speculation and controversy. What is not in dispute is that Blair and Brown created their own hostile followings within the Party, which now faces the danger of being torn apart by the continuation of the old infighting as the Party searches for a new leader.

New Age Coalition, post-devolution Britain

Personalities aside, the character of the new age is reflected in the welcome reception to the ideologically incompatible Liberal-Conservative coalition and the hostile cynicism that was being provoked by the possibility of the ideologically far more compatible Labour-Liberal coalition. Pundits are not characterizing the new coalition as unholy alliance, marriage of convenience, or strange bedfellows, expressions that were commonplace in the more combative politics of the past. On the other hand, even prominent Labour statesmen were revolted by the prospect of a coalition between the second and third placed parties. To them it wouldn’t be ‘cricket’, that is the cricket of old and not the cricket of Lal Modi or Sanath Jayasuriya.

At the level of policy priorities, the new coalition arrangement focuses on the key areas of Economy, Education, Political Reform, Civil Liberties, Health and Welfare, Immigration, Environment and Foreign Policy, with give and take between the two parties. Overall, the Tories have prevailed in the areas of economic policy, immigration, foreign policy and health. The biggest gain for the Liberal Democrats is in the area of political reform, and the two parties share common ground in education, civil liberties, welfare and the environment.

The coalition’s collegial message is more transparent in the sharing of cabinet portfolios. Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister, a position that appears to be more than window dressing. Four of his senior colleagues are also assigned to key portfolios dealing with Business/Banks, Energy/Climate, the Treasury, and Scotland. The appointment of Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander as the Scottish Secretary is indicative of Tory weakness in Scotland, and the government’s desire to have effective presence there to counter the Scottish dominance by the Labour Party and the SNP.

Britain’s new age politics is also characterized by its post-devolution changes, involving devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the regions of England. Shakespeare’s ‘blessed plot and realm’ of England are now a different plot and state of the United Kingdom. After a century of discussion over devolution, it was the Labour Party, traditionally the weaker of the two main parties on constitutional matters, which enacted starting in 1998 separate Acts of Parliament to devolve power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What is remarkable about Britain’s devolutionary project is that all political parties, the central government and the entire (numerically overwhelming) English population are supportive of the purpose and implementation of devolving powers to Britain’s three traditional territories.

Where devolution has run into problems, it has nothing to do with any majoritarian opposition by the English people, "equal protection of the law" ruling by courts, or deliberate undermining by the central government; but everything to do with the local quirks and politics of the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. The one outstanding question is about devolution within England itself – involving the different regions of England. That too is the result of theoretical appetite for more regional autonomy rather than a real concern of the English people. Furthermore, devolution has not ignited ‘nationalist’ voices or created constitutional chaos. The system is working well and in the April elections, the English people thoroughly rejected the English Nationalist Party, and in Scotland the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nick Griffin, was trounced by Labour’s Margaret Hodge in the riding of Barking.

It is useful to remember that even before the recent legislative changes, Britain did have a well established system for dealing with non-English territories – in terms of separate administrative structures, territorial Secretaries (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) in the Cabinet, and separate question periods in the House of Commons to debate matters pertaining to non-English territories. Britain’s celebrated ‘unitary constitution’ did not preclude these federalizing measures just as it did not prevent formalizing devolution through Acts of Parliament. The change arising from the April election is that for the first time since 1998, Labour is out of power at Westminster and the Conservatives registered their electoral success almost entirely in England. The change in political parties at the helm opens a new chapter in post-devolution Britain, one in which devolution is more likely to be strengthened and not undermined.

While the new coalition gets preoccupied with the tasks of governing, the Labour Party is embarking on an internal search for a new leader. The two leading candidates are also indicative of Britain’s maturity as well as its openness as a democracy. The Miliband brothers, David and Ed, sons of Ralph Miliband, Marxist Sociologist of Polish Jewish origin, represent not only the Blair and Brown factions respectively within the Labour Party but also the changing face of Shakespeare’s England. Whether their contest will generate positive debate or degenerate into a sibling feud fuelled by inner-party factionalism remains to be seen. It should be an interesting contest, may be not as TV-dramatic as the Obama-Hillary primary, but, hopefully, more politically substantial.

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