Opinion

British politics viewed from an American perspective

01 May 2015

Jim Prevor - PBUK

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

William Butler Yeats
The Second Coming

Traditionally, the British “First past the post” system brought finality and stability to the Mother of Parliaments. There was no instability as in Italy or other parliamentary systems, where proportional representation led to indecisive election after indecisive election.

Now, with polls indicating that the Scottish National Party (SNP) is about to win virtually all Scottish seats and UKIP threatening to cut substantially into the support for both the Tories and Labour, serious forces whirl. One group, the SNP, wants to pull Scotland out of the UK, and the other group, UKIP, wants to pull the UK out of Europe.

One thinks of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. In the musical the father, Tevye, wrestles with the tension between tradition and modernity. He accommodates a changing society, allowing his eldest daughter to marry for love, breaking a pre-arranged marriage bargain. He then gives his blessing to his second-eldest daughter when she explains she doesn’t need his permission to marry. Yet when his third daughter decides to marry out of the faith, asking neither permission nor blessing, but just acceptance, Tevye says “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break”. One senses that the UK is in some pivotal sense at a point where a fundamental decision has to be made. As in the Yeats poem, “the centre cannot hold”.

When Scotland held its referendum and British politicians – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat – basically all of them – ran off to pander to Scottish voters and offer all manners of concession if they would stay in the union, it was startling to an American.

After all, the Treaty of Union had no exit clause. It was a decision to bond together, and true bonds are difficult to form if there is even the possibility of an exit. Perhaps as an American, my experience is coloured, as in our Civil War, when the South seceded, the answer was Antietam  the bloodiest single day still in American history where 22,717 soldiers were killed on both sides – this at a time when the total US population was less than half what the UK population is today.

One measure of a man and a nation is what each would fight for, and I sensed there were actually at least some Scots who would fight and die to rid themselves of the English. This borders on insanity, as the Scots live in one of the most free and prosperous societies in human history. But some are drunk on history and still see themselves as Mel Gibson playing William Wallace in Braveheart.

Yet as disheartening as it is to see people behave so passionately over long-ago sins, it is also true that we could not find even one Englishman who would propose sending even one division to preserve the Union. In the background we wondered what the English would fight and die for. We think of the Falkland Islands. Was that just a matter of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, being in office? A particular match of leader and circumstances? If the islands were seized again, tomorrow, would Britain go to war to reclaim them? Could it? The defense budget has dwindled in real dollars. Is it really possible for Britain to “punch above its weight” anymore. Do the people want to play that role in the world? Do they want to pay the price? Where is the constituency to up the defense budget?

To our minds, having a referendum regarding Scotland made no sense. Having a referendum implies that secession is a right, a right determined by majority rule.

Though this referendum led to a decision to stay in the union, 55% to 45%, there is nothing magic about the year 2014. Surely one day the polls will show that a secession referendum will win and they will ask to hold another – and on what basis can it be denied?

Having 45% of the vote is a loser in a referendum, but with multiple parties, it is a big winner in a parliamentary election. Because Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, plus other parties, will split the remaining vote, if the SNP gets anywhere near 45% of the vote, it will carry almost every seat in Scotland. Because its voters are highly concentrated, it will result in disproportionate numbers of seats.   

SNP may get 5% of the national vote. If UKIP does just that, it would not win many seats because its support is spread around the UK, but the SNP, with its concentrated support, will win perhaps 50 seats in the 650 seat parliament – perhaps enough to block either the Conservative or Labour parties from forming a government without the SNP.

Yet a coalition with SNP is a coalition with a force that hopes to rip the United Kingdom apart – and so it is very problematic.

Indeed, already, the promises made to keep Scotland in the Union seem impossible. The gist is that Scotland’s own parliament will have great autonomy. This, however, creates the bizarre situation where the English – 85% of the UK population – do not get to vote on Scottish matters, but the Scottish members of parliament will continue to vote in the British parliament and thus will be able to vote on all matters affecting the English.

Many proposals have been floated on how to deal with this, but none are wholly satisfying.

The Conservatives have promised a referendum on continued membership in the European Union. This is cowardly. Politicians owe the citizens not obedience but industry and judgement and it is their responsibility to study the issue, make a decision, tell the people and accept the risk of being voted out of office.

The conservatives have basically said they favour staying in the EU with the caveat of negotiating a better deal, but it seems unlikely a much better deal is forthcoming.

I can see why many Brits recoil at the European Union. There are all kinds of day-to-day concerns – notably immigration – but, more fundamentally, Britain has more to lose. Germany desperately needs Europe for its past is dark, and it wants to be subsumed in a larger European project. France yearns for greatness but it is too small and ageing to be that great power, so it seeks to lead a European enterprise into a new generation of greatness. In any case, for most European countries, their self-identification is caught up with food and wine and culture. So if the bureaucracy switches to Brussels, it is of small import.

Yet Britain is different. Its distinctive contribution to the world is closely related to governance. It is the Magna Carta and the “Mother of all Parliaments” – if a Frenchman falls asleep and awakes to the 27th Republic, it matters little as long as they still speak French, eat cheese and drink wine, but being British means something more closely related to the long political traditions of the island nation.

Yet being isolated from the EU hardly seems an option. All the top produce companies in the UK now have operations in Spain or the Netherlands or eastern Europe. Some say an independent UK could negotiate access to the market as have Switzerland and Sweden, but this seems a great challenge as the remaining countries would be anxious to prove that leaving is deleterious and so would resist negotiating favourable terms for quite a while. Even if negotiations succeed, they may require all the things – such as open immigration – that people do not like about the EU.

As an American, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, we believe that British influence in the councils of Europe is a positive thing and, mostly, are in line with our ways of thinking. On the other hand, with freedom of migration, we fear that all that which makes Britain so special a friend to America will ultimately be subsumed.

I never see it mentioned, but I wonder if in addition to two options – into the EU or out – if the possibility of Britain becoming a State in the United States shouldn’t be considered. It would provide a large domestic market, plus much heft in negotiating access to Europe and elsewhere. Culturally and linguistically, there is much more in common between the UK and US than there is between the UK and France. Perhaps Scotland will, with its socialist proclivities, want to stay behind.

Perhaps it is just “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. But sometimes, as things spin, new, seemingly impossible, solutions are needed.

So often we think of our governmental interests as being represented by trade associations. On some of these very fundamental issues, the associations have little influence, though the effects on our lives and businesses are profound. The success of any produce company is far more likely to be determined by Britain’s involvement in the EU than by the lack of some particular pesticide.

It is not for this American to tell our friends and associates in the UK how to vote, and we first came to admire Britain when as a boy we came to admire Churchill who explained that: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

So, it stands for the British to decide who and what they wish to be.

This is their decision and their decision alone. Yet, for a nation that has given so much to the world, the world cannot be indifferent to the outcome.

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