Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Americanization of the British political culture?

Former prime minister Tony Blair was accused of being too presidential. Maybe that's what the British regime needs.

Britain's election: rise of Scottish and English nationalists threatens old order
On 7 May, Britain goes to the polls. Voters are deserting Labour and the Tories in favour of resurgent Scottish nationalists and an English version of the Tea Party. The result could spell the end for the system as we know it…

When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they were determined to prevent a tyranny like George III’s, and so separated out the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government to keep each other in check.

That didn’t happen in Britain, where reforming governments wrestled royal prerogatives away from the monarch, and kept most to themselves.

Thus, in a parliamentary system where the leader of the party with most elected members of parliament (MPs) gets to become prime minister, a Commons majority allows the cabinet to do “anything except change a man into a woman”, as the old Victorian joke goes…

In the 1951 election, Labour and the Conservatives – or Tories – shared 96% of the vote. By 2010 they could only manage 66% between them…
Contrary to predictions, the 2010 coalition has survived its full five-year term, partly thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which Cameron and his deputy, the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, passed to stop each other walking out on the deal and triggering an early election at a self-serving moment.

They also had hopes of passing constitutional reform, but fell out over scrapping Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system… with a European-style system of proportional representation, and replacing the House of Lords… with an elected, regionally based Senate.

Hereditary lords, heirs to medieval warriors, can still vote on legislation in a 21st century democracy? Constitutional reform must be a slow process in Britain, you may well think.

Correct. But pressure for change from below is coming fast – and from two previously unlikely directions. And this is where the 2015 UK general election becomes seriously tricky…

Nicola Sturgeon
The Scottish national party has barely paused for breath since losing last September’s referendum on independence for Scotland…

Since the referendum result… disaffected working-class Labour voters have flocked to the SNP. Polls suggest the Scottish nationalists, now led by Scotland’s new first minister, the formidable Nicola Sturgeon, will slaughter Labour north of the border, winning dozens of Scotland’s 59 seats and perhaps holding the balance of power in London. If she finds herself in that position, Sturgeon promises to block Cameron and prop up a minority Miliband administration…

Nigel Farage
Meanwhile, in England, the populist anti-European right, in the form of the UK independence party (Ukip), has evolved under the skillful leadership of Nigel Farage from a ragbag collection of misfits, eccentrics and renegades into a real party. It is one whose proven ability to win protest votes at four-yearly elections to the 28-nation European parliament is now threatening the status quo at Westminster…

Ukip’s “little guy” rank-and-file is not always quite so on-message. This is disruptive Tea Party Republicanism with added potency. Imagine if Washington were required to enact laws by a mixture of Nafta and the UN, its HQ located in, say, Toronto…

As the eurozone crisis continues, anti-establishment insurgencies like the SNP’s are surfacing all over Europe: nationalist, populist, separatist, left or right.

But nowhere… do identity politics combine with economic grievance more disruptively than in Britain. A nightmare stalemate may be the outcome on 7 May – more populist, more localist than ever before. More unstable, too? A second 2015 election may well follow the first…

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