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13 May, 2011

The Weak Union

The future of the United Kingdom has been thrown into doubt by elections that have swept into office Scottish nationalists committed to independence for Scotland, ending 300 years of union with England.

In an extraordinary personal triumph, Alex Salmond, the Scottish nationalist who headed a devolved coalition government in Edinburgh, won an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament on May 5. He immediately declared this was a mandate to go ahead with a referendum on full independence for Scotland, which would become Europe's newest EU member. This could mean a new international frontier for England, abolition of constitutional links with London and an end to the Queen's reign in Scotland.

The revolutionary result came on the same day that all British voters decisively rejected any change in their voting system. A proposal to scrap the so-called "First Past the Post" system and move to a proportional "Alternative Vote" was rejected by more than 2:1 in a nationwide referendum, the first held in Britain since 1975.

The result was a severe blow to the Liberal Democrats, the small third party in British politics which is currently the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition government in London. The Lib Dems had campaigned passionately for a system that would give them more seats in Westminster. Their failure to win even a third of the vote was a severe setback for their leader, Nick Clegg, who is the Deputy Prime Minister, and has led to a huge strain in the coalition. His political standing was further undermined by local elections held on the same day. This saw a massive loss of council seats for the Liberal Democrats around the country, as angry voters turned out to punish the Lib Dems for supporting the cuts and job losses recently implemented by the coalition to rescue Britain's stuttering economy.

The "No" vote, opposing any change in the voting system, won by 69 per cent to 31 per cent. This effectively halts any move to alter the current system for at least 30 years. A low turn-out in the referendum, of about only 42 per cent, also showed that most Britons had little interest in the issue and were angry at politicians wasting time on an issue seen as far less important than jobs, the economy, immigration and spending cuts.

Britainis one of the few Western democracies that has no proportional element in its voting system. Each Member of Parliament is elected according to how many votes he receives in his constituency. Whoever wins the most votes wins the seat, even if he has only one vote more than his nearest rival. Under the proposed alternative vote system, voters would be able to mark their second choice on the ballot paper. If no candidate got more than half the votes, the lowest scoring candidate would be eliminated and the second votes of his supporters would be redistributed. This would go on until one candidate had more than half the total votes and was declared the winner.

David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister, and all his Conservative party argued forcefully that the present system stopped the proliferation of fringe parties, led to stable governments and was easy to understand. The Labour party was split on the issue, with its leader Ed Miliband supporting the alternative vote but most of his party opposed to any change.

The referendum and the local council elections came almost a year after the formation of Britain's first national coalition government since the Second World War. They were used by many voters to send a message to Westminster. This was very different from what polls had forecast. The Conservatives did surprisingly well, winning the referendum and holding on to the vast majority of their local council seats. In view of the fury over job losses and cuts to government services, this was seen as surprising. The price was paid by the Liberal Democrats, who were virtually eliminated from local government and whose supporters angrily denounced their leaders for "betraying" the party by supporting the Conservatives in coalition.

The Labour party also did badly. Apart from Wales, where it nearly won an absolute majority in the local parliament, it failed to win council seats in areas that were key targets, especially the south. This suggests that most Britons are unimpressed by the youthful Mr Milibad, who has been party leader for only eight months. Labour did especially badly in Scotland, its former stronghold, as the wave of support for the Scottish National Party swept away Labour's support in the Scottish Parliament.

Will Scotland now push for full independence? There will undoubtedly be a referendum there within the next five years. But support for independence is low, as it would cost Scotland vast amounts of money from London and might lower living standards. Mr Cameron has said he would fight to maintain the union. Mr Salmond is a pragmatic politician, however, and like the Parti Quebecois in Canada may hesitate to push for independence now. Whatever happens, the United Kingdom will not change the way it votes for its politicians. But it may be a looser political union in the future than it has been in the past.

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