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Five Takeaways (and a Needlepoint) from the British Elections

It's Maggie Thatcher's world, and we're just living in it.

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The dust is starting to settle on Britain’s Thursday elections, and a few aspects of this moment in British politics are now coming into clearer view. Heads are rolling and history is being made: Strap in for five key points (and a bit of needlepoint) to consider.

‘I am William Wallace!’ Sorta?

This was the election where the Scottish National Party rewrote the UK’s electoral map. By nearly completing a clean sweep of Scotland’s seats in the House of Commons, the SNP did more than anyone else — besides Ed Miliband himself, but more on that later — to ensure that Labour would go down in flames. Alex Salmond, the former head of the party, said the Scottish lion had roared, and Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s current head (and, no, not all of SNP-ers have fish-related surnames, as delightful as that would be), said the tectonic plates of Scottish politics had shifted.

The situation in play now is effectively that Scotland is a one-party state and that there exists a complete divide in political representation between Scotland and the other three nations in the U.K. — England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Scottish independence referendum may have failed, but the consequences are that the basic rules of U.K. politics have been rewritten. The immediate challenge for Prime Minister David Cameron is how to draft a political pact that addresses the forces that threatens to pull apart the United Kingdom. He has said devolution of political power will continue, but there are many in Britain now calling for a constitutional convention as to how powers are going to be shared between national legislatures and Parliament in London.

In his remarks on Friday, Cameron emphasized that he planned to be a prime minister for all of the United Kingdom. But one glance at the electoral map reveals his predicament. The Conservatives lost in Scotland. They lost in Wales. They lost in Northern Ireland. It was only in England that they won. England just happens to be larger than the rest, and the Conservatives seat-totals there were sufficient to outweigh their losses elsewhere. One might describe Cameron as a colonial leader ruling fractious imperial subjects to the north and west of the capital. Others have called him Benjamin Netanyahu, which just makes one wonder who are the Palestinians in that analogy.

No Moules Frites, Just Kidney Pie, Thanks.

Separately but also relatedly to the previous thought about Scotland, the UK Independence Party put on quite a showing on Thursday — and managed to get nothing for it. The party is the third-largest by vote total — winning 12.6 percent of all ballots cast, a rather incredible figure — even if it managed to win only one seat in Parliament. That speaks to the depth of suspicion that now exists in Britain toward the European Union.

Beset by Euroskeptics in his own party and the rise of UKIP, Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the EU, and that may be the next cataclysmic vote we have to look forward to in British politics. Britain has always had a conflicted relationship with the union, but a British exit would be a true catastrophe for the political pact. The EU’s power lies in the collective clout of its membership, and a so-called “Brexit” would call into question the EU’s future and may spur a rush to the exit from other members.

Given Cameron’s ability to pull a rabbit from an electoral hat on Thursday, there’s good reason to believe that he would win such a referendum, but the immediate question is how EU leaders will now approach the question of giving up some powers in Brussels (where, for the uninitiated, the moules frites are excellent) and returning them to London. The union’s heavyweights have so far driven a hard bargain and argued that Britain must act with the interests of the EU in mind, but UKIP’s continued share of the vote is only increasing. Cameron has to figure out a way to blunt UKIP’s argument that British sovereignty is being stripped away by the EU. How he does so is a key question for his premiership moving forward.

Whither the Global Left?

Poor Ed Miliband thought he could win this election by shifting the Labour party back toward its roots and away from the centrist policies that brought Tony Blair to power in the 1990s. Suffice to say, Miliband was wrong, and now he’s out of a job. That opens up some rather interesting questions about the state of the global left.

Just go through the following exercise: Name a successful left-wing leader in power today in the developed world.

You’d think that would be an easy question to answer, but it isn’t. Francois Hollande’s administration is up in flames. The left-wing vision of Ed Miliband was just utterly rejected by British voters. In Brazil, the political project of the Workers’ Party is coming under intense pressure because of popular dissatisfaction with corruption and scandals. In Greece, Syriza is rapidly backtracking on its promises to rip up austerity and challenge its creditors. For the American left, the administration of President Barack Obama has been one long exercise in lowering expectations.

(Ok, so there’s the Scandinavian welfare states, but until some country outside of that frigid peninsula figures out how to replicate their experiences, they’re the exception that merely proves the rule.)

The global left might look to popular movements such as Occupy and the Indignados in Spain for inspiration in popular mobilization, but those movements have struggled and mostly failed to translate popular energy into political power.

Which all just goes to show that….

We Live in Maggie Thatcher’s World

The first election after the death of Margaret Thatcher just goes to show her continuing influence on British politics. It’s an incredible feat that the Tories managed to increase their seats and share of the national vote while embarking on a program of cost-cutting. The Tories have continued their patron saint’s policies of strangling the spendthrift British state, depriving many of their government benefits and forcing students to pay higher fees for their university education. Somewhere in her crypt, Thatcher’s corpse is doing calisthenics readying itself for its return as the Tory candidate of 2024.

When Tony Blair’s New Labour was an embrace of market economics, and that was a vision that Miliband and many died-in-the-wool leftists saw as a betrayal of the party’s patrimony. Miliband distanced himself from Blair and his thinking, and Thursday’s results are the price he paid. Blair’s realization, one might argue, was that Labour had to do battle with the Tories on their own turf, one that Thatcher had both defined and occupied.

What the F*&! Is Up With Political Polling?

For weeks, the polls in Britain had indicated that we would wake up Friday to a hung Parliament. That didn’t happen, and the Tories secured an outright majority. This is now the fourth major election in recent memory that pre-election polls have badly botched the final outcome:

  1. Underestimating the extent of Lib Dem and Labour losses Thursday.
  2. Underestimating Likud’s victory in Israel’s March elections.
  3. Underestimating the GOP’s performance in the 2014 midterms.
  4. Predicting a close, final outcome to the Scottish independence referendum, when the final result was a resounding victory for the “no” campaign.

There are many structural reasons for why it is harder to carry out accurate political polling today. The decline of landlines and increased use of cellphones has made younger voters harder to reach. Pollsters, more broadly, have had a hard time applying rigorous statistical methods to the digital communications revolution.

But the current state of affairs is unacceptable. Polling inevitably has an effect on the final outcome of an election by encouraging voters to cast their ballots tactically and influencing perceptions as to who is up and who is down. When that polling isn’t grounded in reality, the public opinion industry begins to make a mockery of the democratic process. In retrospect, the entire British election campaign now has a sheen of unreality to it, as we realize that most of our underlying assumptions had been completely wrong.

The British Polling Council says it will investigate what went wrong. We eagerly await their findings.

The Most British Thing Ever

Throughout the election returns on Thursday, Tom Katsumi was heroically needlepointing the results. Take a moment to appreciate what must be the most British thing ever. He apparently was none too pleased with the outcome.

And a more lowbrow take:

JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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