Last week in Britain, four men and three women faced the cameras in a broadcast debate that not only marked the start of a crucial election campaign but also served as proof of the meltdown of what had been one of the world’s most stable two-party political systems.
The plethora of parties vying for representation in the mother of parliaments may bring the mother of all political turbulence. The candidates are plunging Britain into an uneasy time that will only become more intense after the May 7 vote, there is no avoiding it.
With one exception, the men represent parties that have existed for a century — the Labour Party, led by Ed Miliband — or more — the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minster David Cameron. The Liberal Democratic Party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is heir to the 19th-century Liberals. The exception is Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, founded 12 years ago.
The women are the real radicals: Nicola Sturgeon, new leader of the Scottish National Party, is a Scot; Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, is Welsh, and Natalie Bennett of the Green Party is, surprisingly, Australian. The first two want to break up Britain by taking Scotland or Wales out of the union. Bennett wants “a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all,” which would mean low or no growth. All are hostile to “austerity,” the economic policy, followed throughout Europe, that focuses on reducing national budget deficits through a mixture of public-sector cuts and tax increases.
The three main party leaders represent the great forces of the 20th century, a century in which Britain started out as the motherland of the largest empire the world had seen — and ended with Britain still rich and of some importance but no more geographically than two islands off the west coast of Europe, one of which is also occupied by another state, Ireland.
The Liberal Party governed before World War One and faded rapidly thereafter. From then until now, Conservatives and Labour managed the transition from grandeur to normalcy. The forces they represented (never exclusively) — the professional, commercial and employing classes versus organized labor and the intelligentsia, broadly defined — were never in danger of rebelling against each other.
For the past few decades, all classes demanded of both these parties roughly the same things: increased consumption; continued socialized medicine, education and social care; more or less free markets; free press and free speech, and a secular state. Britain, like other states, thinks itself special. So it is. At the same time, it is very much like the other peaceful, rich states of Western Europe.
The other four people who faced the cameras challenge much of that. For Sturgeon and Wood, the history of the 20th century has been a loss of external imperial rule and a strengthening of internal imperialism over the other nations of Britain.
“London rule” is the common bogeyman. It conjures up an image of a capital divorced from the reality of Welsh valleys or Scottish lowlands, both scarred by the 19th-century industries that had fuelled the empire.
Farage of the UK Independent Party has two main arguments. One, there are too many immigrants in Britain and their numbers must be sharply reduced to roughly 30,000 to 50,000 a year. Two, Britain must leave the European Union.
Farage has many fans across Britain, especially outside London. Though his party has faded since winning the largest vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections, it may take some seats in the May vote, which would defy the British bias that the first past the post-electoral system presents for all new parties.
Cameron and Miliband, meanwhile, see each other as major enemies. Cameron emphasizes, banking on Miliband’s relative unpopularity, that only one of the two can become prime minister. But both are conscious, more than any of their predecessors for 100 years, that the basic offerings of their parties are peeling and flaking off. Consider: The Conservatives’ full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party. In contrast, the insurgents, especially in Scotland, have the wind at their backs.
Labour, as its name proclaims, should be hostile to an austerity policy that hits the poor and working classes hardest. But it can’t afford to be seen as reckless or insouciant about debt, or destructive of the relatively healthy economic growth that the Conservatives have managed to encourage. Clegg has struggled to convince his followers that his small party’s participation in the government over the past five years has made the country more liberal or, indeed, more democratic. But the great causes of the Liberals have long been absorbed into left and right policies.
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are in the same moderate boat: They face four who see radicalism as their best trick. All seven are trying to navigate currents already treacherous for parliamentary rule, including social media and the Internet, the rise of new powers like China and India, and the decline of the environment carve into the measured decorousness of the old representative democracies.
There are commentators who insist that the surge of populism across Europe, in which Britain shares, will be a flash in the pan, and the traditional two-, or at most, two-and-a-half party rule will resume. That’s wrong. Parties of the 19th and 20th centuries have fights on their hands. At the very least, the established parties need to reinvent themselves in ways that must renounce old customs and assumptions and find new equilibrium in a changing country and a transforming globe.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.