PARIS — "It’s the economy, stupid!" Just like the famous slogan in Bill Clinton's 1992 challenge, the economy may have been decisive for David Cameron — but in a positive way this time for the incumbent.
The economic crisis 22 years ago was George H. W. Bush’s downfall, despite his laudable record in foreign policy. The decline in unemployment and the economic growth guarantee David Cameron’s triumphal return to Number 10, Downing Street.
While the Conservatives emphasized the good results of the economy, Labour and Ed Miliband, its leader who has since stepped down, made the fatal error of conducting a sharply left-wing campaign. The fear of change prevailed over any other consideration, as it had paradoxically been the case with of the success of the “No” during the Scottish referendum in Sept. 2014. In both cases, the economic considerations turned out to be decisive.
But beyond Cameron’s shattering victory, which defied all pre-election polls that showed him neck-and-neck with Miliband, the British elections also point to a looming revolution that could have historic consequences on multiple fronts. In first instance, of course, is the triumph of the Scottish nationalists of the SNP, who won almost every seat in Scotland (56 out of 59). They may have a Syriza-like economic message and claim to be much attached to the European Union, the May 7 vote was, for the Scottish people, before anything else, the equivalent of a “do-over referendum.” Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's leader, made them understand they had a second chance to seize and that they had to overcome their fears. Disappointed by London’s behavior since the 2014 referendum, they voted this time with their hearts.
Can we go as far as saying that last Thursday’s elections convey a double defeat of union, in the British sense of the word? We can, of course, expect now that a triumphant David Cameron will fulfill his promise of a referendum in 2017 on the UK's place in the European Union. But the elections also reflect the new political, economic and cultural reality of what, until now, they still call the United Kingdom.
The three Britains
A new tripartite system has just emerged: Conservatives, Labour, Scottish nationalists. (The Eurosceptic party UKIP did get important results, but it only got one seat and, this a major humiliation, Nigel Farage will not enter the House of Commons and also stepped aside as leader.)
Beyond this singular tripartite system, there’s a tri-polar reality that is crucial to understand to explain the changes underway. Behind the term “Great Britain,” there are actually three distinct identities. Three, and not only two, as it is often said to emphasize the Scottish exception. There’s London, Scotland and the rest of Britain, including Wales and Northern Ireland.
Of course, there are still major economic and social differences between a richer and more conservative South and more modest and Laborite working-class North. But these differences alone are no longer enough to explain the divided reality of the nation. Cosmopolitan, multicultural, vibrant with energy and dynamism, London has, in fact, effectively left the rest of the United Kingdom, just like the SNP in Scotland intends to do formally.
After more than three centuries of a system that has worked fairly well, David Cameron leads a United Kingdom that is at a historical crossroads. How far can the prime minister go in the concessions to Scotland to maintain the unity of the Kingdom? And, conversely, which concessions will he be able to obtain from the Union, European this time, to maintain Great Britain, or what is left of it, in the EU?
What can the consequences of the voting of the British be for Europe? In Berlin, where I was at the beginning of last week, worry was spreading about the results of a referendum lying ahead. Facing this impending threat, Germany's alliance with Paris was imposing itself more than ever. And, in this context, the future of France itself, considered uncertain, was becoming even more important. And what if, in 2017, Britain says “No” to Europe at the exact moment France says “Yes” to Marine Le Pen's anti-EU National Front party?
This scenario is probably too alarmist, but it reflects Germany’s concerns and its fear of ending up all alone in Europe, as the last “truly European” major country, followed by Poland. The more cynical, tactical question: is France not exaggerating the threat of its National Front to obtain concessions from Germany in negotiations over the European Union. “If you’re too intransigent with us, you’re paving the way for the National Front” is the implicit message of this viewpoint.
The British may feel very far from Europe, but their elections were followed quite closely by Europeans, ever more worried about the possibility of less Great Britain in Europe and in the world.