Scenes From the British Election

Good News and Bad News for Nick Clegg
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 7 2010 12:41 PM

Scenes From the British Election

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In October 2001, a British diplomat in Pakistan wrote a telegram to the Foreign Office in London titled "Ten Myths About Afghanistan." The first of these myths was: We know what's going on.

Since it's not obvious what is going on in Britain after Thursday's general election, here are a few things we do know as of Friday afternoon, London time.

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1. Britain isn't Afghanistan.

2. Britain isn't Greece, either. There has been no run on the pound, and the stock market hasn't crashed, even if no party won a majority in the House of Commons. Today, the French stock market fell by more points than London's FTSE, and in any case, the markets here and elsewhere were in all likelihood reacting as much to what happened in the United States yesterday as they were to the non-outcome of the British election. Contrary to what some people think, Britain isn't the center of the financial universe.

Prior to the election, the Conservatives went on about Britain's public debt and deficit so hysterically that they seemed to be saying that if their party wasn't voted into Downing Street, we'd all be seeing the Acropolis out of our windows. The economic situation in Britain is serious, as it is throughout Europe and in the United States, but desperate it isn't. Not yet.

3. In the first of the TV debates, Gordon Brown's most famous line was "I agree with Nick."—in other words, he was sympathetic to some of the proposals in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto. "I agree with Nick" was the slogan of this election.

Today, Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, both of whom are frantically trying to woo the Liberal Democrats, have essentially reiterated Brown's words. "We agree with Nick," they now say. Cameron and Brown have both made public overtures to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Brown has offered the Lib Dems electoral reform, including a referendum on how Britain elects its MPs. Cameron didn't offer as much as Brown, but he intimated that he would like a coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Still, it's not certain whether Cameron's party will go along with such a coalition, or if Clegg will accept Cameron's offer.

4. Prior to Thursday's vote, there was something of a consensus that this would be a good election to lose. Such are the problems the next government will face—primarily about making unpopular public spending cuts—there's a good chance it would never be liked by the electorate and might be hated so much that it survives just one term.

As things have turned out, every major party lost this election. The Tories failed to win an overall majority—six months ago it looked as if that outcome was all but inevitable. Labor lost 91 seats, which means Gordon Brown has failed to defend his prime ministership.

The Liberal Democrats not only failed to make gains in constituencies such as Hampstead & Kilburn, which many thought they would win, they now have five fewer seats than in the last Parliament. Still, the party did increase its share of the vote by 1 percent, and it now finds itself in the position of powerbroker. This is good news and bad news for Nick Clegg. Good, because Conservatives and Labor both now need the Lib Dems if they are to prevail in Parliament. Bad, because if Conservatives or Labor fail to prevail in Parliament, it takes no imagination to see that they will blame Clegg and the Lib Dems for dragging their feet and for holding up important legislation.

5. The Green Party won its first seat, in Brighton, but other minority parties either failed to increase their numbers or won no seats at all. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party ran third, behind Labor and the Lib Dems; in Wales, Plaid Cymru was third behind Labor and the Conservatives. The UK Independence Party and the British National Party didn't win a single seat.

6. Lastly, wait and see. It's entirely possible that yesterday's general election was just the first of 2010. If neither the Conservatives nor Labor can accommodate the Lib Dems, expect a second general election in October or November. In which case, many people will have another reason to stay up all night to wait for the dawn chorus—and the result of the next election.

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Inigo Thomas lives in London. He writes for theLondon Review of Books.

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