The pollsters did a lousy job of forecasting yesterday’s British general election. Instead of a close race between the Labour Party and its leader, Ed Miliband, and the Conservative Party and its leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, the incumbents won a decisive victory. As I write and tradition dictates, Cameron has already met with the Queen. And as I write and convention suggests, he has already returned to 10 Downing Street and reiterated his intention. He will govern as prime minister of “one United Kingdom.”
Just one problem. It’s not clear that this can happen. It’s not clear that Cameron can continue to preside over the United Kingdom as we have known it – which includes Scotland.
On the face of it he has defied the odds. By winning another electoral victory he has gone against the conventional wisdom, which is that in the 21st century democratic leadership is not only notoriously hard but famously unrewarding. But … what kind of prize is it that Cameron has actually won? Will yesterday’s victory turn out historically hollow?
Setting aside the numberless uncertainties that plague every head of state, for sure Cameron’s capacity to lead is threatened twice over. First is the mounting pressure in Scotland for independence – in spite of his constant conciliations and concessions. Labour was nearly wiped out yesterday in Scotland precisely because of the surging Scottish National Party. Which is why it cannot possibly be confidently predicted that when Cameron finally leaves office he will still be presiding over “one United Kingdom.”
Second is that Cameron has committed himself to conducting an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Again, this is not a circumstance of his own choosing. Just as he would wish away surging Scottish nationalism, so he would wish away the referendum on participation in the European Union. But he cannot. He has been unable in both cases to control the momentum for change, which is precisely why his remaining tenure as prime minister is likely to be more sobering than uplifting. Yes, David Cameron has won reelection. But his moment in the sun will be short-lived. Odds are good that by the time he leaves office England will be a country further diminished.