EVEN if you allow for the vanity that sometimes convinces us that this fleeting moment is the most historically significant, it is still very difficult to imagine that there has been, in the history of this State, a British general election result with the potential to have a greater impact on this island than the Conservatives’ resounding and totally unexpected victory yesterday.
The Tory House of Commons majority was so unexpected that Ed Miliband, who 48 hours ago still believed he could become Britain’s next prime minister, is no longer even leader of the Labour Party. His fate has been shared by the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg and Ukip’s Nigel Farage, both of whom fell on their swords, though each presided over very different performances.
The winner-takes-all nature of British politics means that, even before the post-mortems on the Labour, Lib Dem, and Ukip campaigns begin, the conversation has already moved on to who will succeed these three leaders.
It also is bound to renew a debate, or at least it should, about the country’s electoral system’s undemocratic nature, which was highlighted by the glaring differences in the ratio of seats to votes experienced by Ukip and the Scottish Nationalist Party. Even the briefest analysis of the figures will show a disparity that would not be possible under proportional representation. It may be overly optimistic to expect the winners to change the rules of the game.
The absolute dominance of Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party is as virulent yet peaceful an expression of nationalism seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War — a triumph which, coincidentally, was marked in London just hours after the election result was confirmed.
Whether Ms Sturgeon can hold her party together when it realises that its sweeping victory in Scotland is almost immaterial in day-to-day House of Commons business is one of the most interesting questions posed by this result.
Whether resurgent Scottish nationalism is glue enough to hold the 50-plus SNP MPs — including the youngest MP in 300 years, 20-year-old Mhairi Black — together on a range of issues is an open question. The SNP achievement, however, seems certain to, sooner or later, realign relationships within the UK. It also brings another referendum on Scottish independence closer than could have been imagined when last September’s vote opted to remain within the union.
It is hard to imagine that an ever more assertive Scottish nationalism will not provoke a more robust, insular nationalism in England, one that may be less generous to peripheral regions of the UK. This cannot but have defining and probably negative consequences for Northern Ireland.
However, in an Irish and European context, all of these possibilites are little more than one of last night’s strathspeys in light of the now inevitable and possibly era-defining referendum on whether or not Britain will remain within the European Union.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that, should Britain opt to quit the European project, this State — this economy and this society — might face the greatest challenge in our history. A slight hint of what a British exit might mean was seen on currency markets yesterday after the Tory victory was confirmed. Sterling jumped above the $1.55 mark. Britain’s currency saw its sharpest rise against the euro for six years, rising by as much as 2% to hit €1.382. These ratios are hugely significant for Ireland, an economy at least as dependent on Anglo/American business as it is on EU business.
That the EU has already moved to disabuse prime minister David Cameron of the idea that EU laws on workers’ rights and freedom of movement might be diluted to persuade Britain to remain in the EU shows the scale of the problem. Nevertheless, it is ironic and somewhat tragic that Britain elected a party obliged to hold a vote on EU membership on the very day that the 70th anniversary of the end of the apocalypse that made the EU and European unity essential was marked. In that context, and in the longer term, that might turn yesterday’s result into a Pyrrhic victory for the Tories and a tragedy for Europe and Ireland.
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