British Vote Risks Veering Into Chaos

Scottish separatists: they lost the referendum but seem likely to get most seats in coming election on May 7, 2015.

COPENHAGEN — In Europe’s political landscape, one nation’s vantage may offer insights into another’s, and so it seemed this week to a reporter zigzagging from Britain to Denmark to Germany and back again. Consider, for instance, the disparate ways that democracies work and the governments they coax forth.

In some ways, the modest odyssey offered mirror images of places where mainstream politicians shun the extremes to harvest support in the middle ground. In Denmark, as in much of Europe, for instance, immigration is a key issue that candidates ignore at their peril. That is just as true of Britain, where voters will go the polls on May 7, as it is of Germany, where a fervor to curb the arrival of outsiders, particularly Muslims, has been building since the last national election in 2013.

Such is the angst in Denmark after a lethal terrorist attack by a homegrown Islamist in February that Queen Margrethe herself urged immigrants to accept her country’s “mental climate” while maintaining their own traditions of faith or even food. “It’s not about meatballs,” she was quoted as saying, “it’s about adapting to the country that they have come to.”

But, most strikingly, if the electoral preoccupations seem similar, the options open to voters do not. In Denmark and Germany the ballots encourage coalition-building, while those of Britain (and to a large extent, France) do not. And, in recent times, it has been tempting to conclude that political fragmentation in Britain has outstripped mechanisms designed for a simple yes-no choice between the traditional custodians of left and right.

Indeed, a contentious television debate featured seven party leaders clamoring for the attention of voters still mulling the ambivalent legacy of the country’s current coalition, the first in decades, between the dominant Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats who took office in 2010.

Far from the consensus sought in some Continental European electioneering, the balance of power in Britain after May 7 could thus be held by sometimes strident, small parties built around regional or narrow agendas.

With neither of the traditional titans, the Conservatives and Labour, expected to get an absolute majority, these insurgents could well become the kingmakers. Reflecting the unpredictability of the election, often depicted as the most fissile in modern times, even the polls on which analysts base such projections are open to question.

Some of those smaller groupings, moreover, seek to influence the nation’s course on such big issues as European Union membership, economic austerity and the future of Britain’s submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

One political calculation, for instance, is that the Scottish National Party, which is fielding its candidates in 59 Scottish constituencies out of Britain’s 650 voting districts, will trounce the Scottish Labour Party, limiting Labour’s prospects of a national victory and restricting its ability to form a minority government without outside support from, yes, the Scottish National Party.

“The more seats we win for the S.N.P., the louder Scotland’s voice is going to be,” said the party’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

Underpinning the calculus is a British voting system that rewards candidates with the most votes in individual constituencies, allowing parties to gain national power with a minority popular vote, as in the United States.

Compare that with more convoluted systems based on proportional representation, like in Denmark or in Germany, where voters cast two ballots, one for a party chosen from a list and one for a candidate in a voting district.

Complicated, as Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine noted, yet fair.

In Britain’s unfolding free-for-all, parties with slender representation at present — the Greens, the euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party, nationalists in Wales and Scotland, and Northern Ireland parties defined by competing nationalisms — are weighing their bargaining power in the horse-trading that is widely expected to consume politicians after May 7.

Not necessarily fair, to revamp Der Spiegel’s assessment, but challenging, at least, and possibly, uncharacteristically, chaotic.

Related: Nicola Sturgeon warns Ed Miliband voters will ‘never forgive him’ if he walks away from chance to kick out the Tories

Sturgeon is the leader of the Scottish National Party(SNP)

  • lgeubank

    Why would the Scots, Irish, Welsh, etc. want to split Great Britain into small, insignificant fragments? Grow up, all you Brits! And you Quebecies, too! And you Basques, while I’m at it.

    But if you Puerto Ricans want to split into your own separate country, God-speed!

  • Nick Fisher

    The Irish don’t have a particular interest in “Great Britain” as this term defines the geographical entity comprising England, Wales and Scotland only.

    The Scots were a proud and independent nation for hundreds of years before 1707 and the emotional attachment to an independent Scotland runs strongly north of the Border.

    Unfortunately (and I speak as a natural Unionist), emotion may well override common sense at the next referendum…

  • Brett_McS

    The first-past-the-post system was supposed to stop all this minor party influence and result in a simple majority winner … as it has done in the past. If it’s not going to do that they may as well have some form of proportional representation, which results in many small parties and the need for coalitions, but is at least ‘fairer’. At the moment they have the worst of both worlds.