The UK Election Result is Actually an Opportunity

One and a half things to say about the UK general election.

First, it’s hillarious watching everyone scratch their heads about how wrong the polls got it. This is silly for a number of reasons.

  1. Polls in the UK are usually wrong, because there aren’t really enough polls taken to pull Nate Silver’s magic trick of averaging them all to divine the wisdom of crowds. It’s the one country left where pundits can still be useful at prognosticating, so you’d think people would’ve learned by now to expect the unexpected there.

  2. Wasn’t it sort of obvious that something like this was going to happen as soon as it became clear that the SNP was going to dominate in Scotland? Exactly who thought it would be a good idea to allow a Labour/SNP coalition to happen? No one, that’s who. And the millions of people who make up "no one" manifested themselves by showing up to vote Tory in England – whether that was by forgoing their first choice of voting UKIP, or by showing up at the local polling station in the first place when they ordinarily wouldn’t have. Point being, even if you haven’t internalized the lesson about the unreliability of UK polls yet, you should at least still know that polls in any country are liable to be unreliable when there’s so much at stake. In a way, elections polls are anti-inductive, in the sense that more people than usual vote when the election is important, making polls untrustworthy in precisely those elections when getting it right matters most. Yes, OK, I get it, Ed Miliband made not one but several promises not to form any coalitions with the SNP in the event, but did you believe him? Because I didn’t. And neither did most of the electorate, by the looks of it. And that’s because people can do basic math and realize that there was simply no way for Labour to form a government without the SNP.

Second, it’s interesting how both sides are claiming that the other side will destroy the Union. Can they both be right? I don’t think so, but that admittedly requires some explanation. In spite of reasonable-sounding columns like Matthew Norman’s in the Independent claiming that it’s Cameron who wrecked the Union by being haughty with Scotland right after the "No" vote (by adding in hints at an English Parliament in his response speech rather than just saying "Thank you, Scotland, for sticking with the rest of us"), I think the Union is safer with the Tories. It’s one thing to say that Cameron could’ve taken a higher road, because that’s exactly right – he could have. It’s another to say that the alternative – a Labour/SNP coalition government – either (a) wouldn’t ever have been a real possibility absent that speech and attitude and (b) would somehow be less of a threat to the Union than the incoming Tory majority government.

Option (b) is so transparently silly you’d think there would nothing to say about it. Clearly, a Labour government beholden to a manifestly separatist party can’t be anyone’s idea of holding the Union together. And yet a lot of commentators seem to think that could somehow work out, so let’s remind them of what they’re missing. To the extent SNP Scotland wants to stay in the Union, it wants to do it Quebec-style, i.e. by getting as much in transfer payments to hand out as candy to its voters as it can. The difference with Canada is that the party most willing to hand out the transfers (Labour) is in direct competition with the party demanding them (SNP). It’s not like this is some cross-border Liberal Party of Canada settlement scheme, where the understanding is that keeping Quebec in the Union is the goal of the enterprise. No, this is more like a Conservative Party of Canada/Bloc Quebequois system, bucept the part about the Conservative Party of Canada being in principle against the equalization payments and going along only pragmatically. The UK would be handing hush money to a party that’s not coy about wanting to wreck the Union at the first opportunity. Scotland already polls about as high for the SNP as it can, so that’s a ceiling. Labour voters probably aren’t the right constituency to be negotiating settlements with Scotland. And Tory voters are certainly not going to be any happier about expansions of the Welfare state that are explicitly designed to funnel money to Scotland than they are about expansions of the Welfare state that at are at least designed primarily to benefit the needy. It’s just not a stable prospect. The SNP won’t form a coalition with the Tories, and Labour voters will revolt after a single Lab/SNP coalition, because they’re not actually getting anything they want out of it. So just forget it.

As for (a), just read the goram numbers already. "Yes" lost in Scotland because a lot of people who don’t normally vote turned out for the Union. Those people did not show up for this election. The SNP actually got fewer votes yesterday than the "Yes" campaign got last September. The implication is clear: the SNP is actually a lot less representative than you think. When you say things like "Scotland voted in September for x and now seems to want y," you’re improperly distributing "Scotland" over both of those variables. It isn’t the same "Scotland" that appears to want the one thing then and the other thing now. The "Scotland" that wants the other thing now is actually a subet of the "Scotland" that wanted the one thing then – a dedicated, passionate subset. A dedicated passionate subset that doesn’t actually give a fig what David Cameron’s attitude was on Referendum Day because they were never concerned with him and always motivated primarily by wanting to leave the Union. So just stop acting like it’s all Cameron’s fault.

That isn’t to say it isn’t partly Cameron’s fault. It is, but not in the way people think. I don’t believe for a minute that Cameron’s crappy sore winner attitude moved the needle any distance toward the SNP and away from Labour in this particular election. But it’s true enough that if he wants to hold the Union together he does need to react sensibly to the reality that Scotland is suddenly a lot more separatist than it used to be. Which is my way of saying that even if Cameron is not now the reason the Union is cracking and certainly not the greatest threat to the Union, neither is there a reason for him to exacerbate a fairly serious problem for no reason: he really does need to do what he can to avoid pouring gasoline on this particular fire. The best way to do that is to actually become the person he said he wanted to be during the Referendum – which means he needs to start phrasing things in positive, pro-Scotland terms rather than divisively floating half-baked schemes for devolving some powers to England. The basic settlement in a Union like this is always that the minority nation gets more powers over its national affairs than the big brother has. England gets paid back in terms of always having the overwhelmingly largest representation in the umbrella parliament – it would actually be wrong, under such an arrangment, for England to have its own local assembly. Cameron needs to internalize that fact and start making that case publicly. Having said that, the conclusion is obvious: we judge whether he’s harmful to the Union or not based on his record from here on. What he said or didn’t say in September is largely irrelevant at this stage; people didn’t vote Tory to get an English parliament, they voted Tory to prevent Labour from allowing the SNP into government.

In conclusion, the media has read this completely wrong. This election wasn’t a consequence of anything that wasn’t already decided, and it hasn’t changed anything on the ground. It’s the conservative shoring up of a status quo that was hammered out in September, not the radical affront to that status quo that the media is selling you. There IS a danger of a radical affront to it showing up, mind you, but that depends on what happens in the future.

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