The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The (Final!) Johnny Foreigner’s Guide to the UK Election: (Insert ‘well hung-parliament’ joke here.)

May 12, 2010

Well, the entire UK General election and transition came and went in less time than it took to do a US Presidential transition. While the ending was a little bumpy with the “hung parliament” result but a full, formal coalition government has been formed and it is no longer ‘anarchy in the UK’. (Bad pun, yes. Could I stop myself? No.) So today the UK has a new Prime Minister and a coalition government. What can we say in the last JFGTUKE post?

Cleggmania… not so much

This I stating the obvious now, but the surge in popularity for the LibDems did not work in their favour. Certainly they increased their share of the votes at the polls, but with the “first past the post”/winner take all system, this actually translated into less seats because LibDem support was spread across the country rather than concentrated in areas through which to take seats.

So it’s not hard to see why the LibDems are so desperate to change the UK electoral system – more of which can be read about here. But it has successfully put voting reform on the agenda. There is a big rally scheduled for Saturday and a referendum on the issue seems to have been promised by the Tories. But the predictability of this outcome lead to…

Voting Strategerie

Many of my friends and colleagues knew this would be the outcome for the LibDems of course – and that people would, in the end, vote for the party they thought would win (or in a way that they felt would best prevent the party they didn’t like from winning.) Still, I was shocked to see just how many of them did, in the end, vote with their heads and not with their hearts.


So it’s a formal coalition. The Tories will be in charge, but there will be at least 5 LibDems in the Cabinet, including Nick Clegg as Deputy PM and Vince Cable doing something with banks. What I find interesting about all of the discussion surrounding forming the government is that the idea that the Tories could go it alone as a minority was not seen as a viable option. (This is the situation in Canada – the government has the most seats, but not an overall majority and is not in any formal coalition.)

The system here seemed to just want, or at least lean towards, a “strong and stable” majority government. Certainly, this is what everyone claimed that this was the markets’ preference. Of course, because of the cuts coming and the difficult times ahead, something more stable is maybe what is going to be needed. And in truth, I don’t think anyone wants an election in six months (well, maybe some Labour friends) and the discussion has indeed been framed in terms of “doing what’s right for the country”. Let’s see how it pans out….

Foreign/EU Policy

…because one of the things that I will be interested in seeing is how foreign policy is going to work. A Lib-Con coalition essentially combines the most Euro-philic and Euro-phobic parties. Conservatives look to the trans-Atlantic “special relationship”, Liberals don’t think it is that big of a deal; that it’s just one of many “special relationships”.

Like many parliamentary democracies, foreign policy is increasingly determined and driven by Number 10 and its priorities. So, if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that foreign and EU policy will probably be driven more by the Tories than the LibDems. (This already seems to be the case – there will be a cap on non-European immigration and LibDems seem to have conceded on replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent.)

My colleague, Al Miskimmon, (very cool on all things Europe and Security) suggested to me that aside from the Number 10 agenda, much will depend on who actually holds what posts in a coalition. Right now, the Chancellor and Foreign Minister are Tories, and it is likely that the Home Secretary will be a Tory as well. These are positions which, other than the Prime Minister, touch most on foreign and EU policies and there is no question that their ideology will have an impact.

However, personally, I can’t help but wonder if being in a coalition will actually temper any EU-skeptic policies that the Tories may have. The EU now impacts on all domestic legislation and it’s not something the UK could just up and leave easily. If Cameron struggles to appease his Euro-skeptic base, he may be able to place blame on his coalition allies. This would allow him to have a less radical policy towards the EU without being accused (or at least being able to excuse himself) of giving into Brussels.

Thatcher: They’re not over it

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but in the last days of the election I couldn’t believe how many references I saw to Thatcher, the 1980s, coalminers strikes, etc. Tories, whatever their colour, shape, size, gender, race – they’re all Thatcher in the eyes of many.

Is this “Tory Derangement Syndrome”? It’s hard for me to know what it was like – I was in Canada while Thatcher was in power and probably spent most of that time playing with My Little Ponies. However, Thatcher is either hero or villain, savior or sinner, the best of times or worst of times… etc. She is only talked about in terms of black or white, there is no in-between. The only thing I could possibly compare it to is the way people speak about Reagan – either saving or nearly destroying the country.

Political colours up front – I’m not a Tory. But to suggest that David Cameron is Margaret Thatcher just seems barmy to me (at least at this point.) Yes, he’s posh. Yes, he went to Eton. But he is no Margaret Thatcher. This is not the 1980s. So far, there is nothing in the Tory agenda which really suggests to me that is truly revolutionary in the same way as what her government was. My friends say that he wants to favour the rich with an inheritance tax cut – but really, that’s hardly what I would call a privatization revolution. (And apparently it was something that they gave up on in exchange for the Coalition government with the LibDems). Cameron, in his first speech outside of Number 10, made a point of saying how much he “believe[s] deeply in public service”.

The fact is that any government coming into power is going to face serious problems and is going to have to make major cuts in spending which will be deeply unpopular. I do not feel that these will necessarily be driven by Tory ideology, but rather just the necessity of the situation. So, in this sense, I can’t help but conclude that the vitriol aimed at the Tories is less for their policies than what they historically represent.

Final Thoughts

Watching the transition, I couldn’t help but feel strangely optimistic. I am very aware that this is not a universal feeling. As mentioned above, my Labour friends seem to be in genuine despair at the state of things. I have non-Labour friends who believe that we’ll have an election in six months (despite whatever agreement may have been reached between the LibDems and Tories). And, of course, the country is in a lot of trouble.

But the idea of a coalition government – where two parties will debate and negotiate ideas to confront the UK’s most pressing issues – seems to me to be something that maybe – just maybe – will work well. After the results came out, Paddy Ashdown observed “The country has spoken – but we don’t know what they’ve said.” But I think we do know – people did not want politics as usual. After a year of parliamentary expenses scandals, a recession, and general disillusionment with politics altogether, I think it’s fair to say that the British want something different. Will it happen? The Liberals may temper the policies of the Tories, and the Tories will be able to form the government that they have wanted for 13 years. Some people have described what will inevitably follow as ‘horse-trading’ but to me it just seems like politics.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard