The British electorate speaks with forked tongue
Indecisive outcomes are periodic features of the Westminster model, even though the plurality (first-past-the-post) system is custom-made to secure a single-party majority. Hung parliaments occurred in the 1970s, for example, always resulting in short-lived governments and new elections. For the most part, such hung parliaments have been accidental consequences of close-run competition between the two major political parties, each driven by significantly differing political philosophies. The 2010 Election differs sharply from this model, for reasons that I must explain.
Over the past 13 years, since New Labour under Tony Blair secured a landslide electoral victory, a decisive plurality of the electorate in each of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, threw its support in favour of a political party that has pursued a supposed Third Way in domestic politics, paying lip-service to laissez-faire market economics, while aggressively endorsing a progressive social market policy agenda. Ultimately this Mediterranean diet has proved to be indigestible, as F.A. Hayek long ago warned would be the case, and as the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) of Euroland unambiguously exemplify.
When governments set out to bloat their public sectors, to protect individuals from the economic consequences of privately uneconomic behaviour, and to securitise their citizens against all misfortunes, from the cradle to the grave, they shape and form a people less and less capable of forging its own success by rational decision-making, hard work, thrift and healthy living, most especially in difficult times. Once a politically decisive majority of the electorate has become addicted to such a diet, and has become individually disabled by that diet, no major political party can distance itself from the “PIGS diet” without courting ongoing minority status; at least until final economic collapse.
In consequence, the 2010 British Election has not been fought out among political parties with significantly varying philosophies, outlined in the form of significantly divergent political platforms. The words of Margaret Thatcher are now unambiguous harbingers of landslide defeat in a largely socialised Britain. So the 2010 Election has been waged over a narrow social market terrain, with the three relevant political parties separated by hair’s-breadth differences on matters economic. In spatial terms, the Liberal Democrats are probably to the left, Labour is in the middle, and the Conservatives are to the right. But the distances are slight.
Given the serious nature of the economic indigestion confronting Mediterranean-diet Britain in May 2010, one might have thought that the voters would have sensed the importance of decisive government. Given the scandals that have encompassed New Labour throughout the Prime Ministership of Gordon Brown, one might have thought that the British electorate would have coalesced around a majority Conservative administration, especially once it became apparent that the Conservatives enjoyed a plurality in the pre-campaign polls. That this has not come to pass, I suggest, is no accident. A plurality of the British electorate is addicted to its PIGS diet. It does not wish to adjust its lifestyle towards rational decision-making, hard work, thrift, and healthy living. By endorsing weak government, this plurality intends to stave off diet change, to continue living unsustainably just as long as it can.
This is the forked tongue message that has flickered out from the British electorate on May 6, 2010. All the rest is pomp and circumstance.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Charles Rowley’s blog.