As the UK votes to select a new government and prime minister, there has been much fulminating about the limitations of the first-past-the-post electoral system. If the 2010 general election showcased its cons, with no party garnering an overall majority in the House of Commons for the first time since 1974, this election threatens to underline them. Opinion polls suggest another hung parliament awaits the UK, with neither the Conservatives nor Labour summoning enough votes to form a government on its own. Each of the possible outcomes threatens the Union Jack, in distinct ways. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories have peddled a promise to renegotiate Britain’s ties with the European Union, in a referendum. His rival Ed Miliband’s Labour is looking to partner with the Scottish Nationalist Party — the fulcrum of Scottish aspirations to secede from the union. The choice, in some ways, is about Britain’s very existence: if thoughts of a Greek exit send a shiver across Europe, a “Brexit” would be catastrophic, for both parties. The same is true for a dismembered Britain.
There has been little in the way of substantive debate on these issues in the run-up, however. Both the Tories and Labour have chosen to ignore the European question. Cameron’s campaign belatedly focused on the economic recovery his government could claim to have spearheaded. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has presided over an economy that, despite running relatively high deficits and weak productivity, is still the envy of the rest of Europe. But broader questions about the role of the state in, say, education and healthcare provision, and fiscal austerity remain.
Undergirding all this is a deep suspicion of coalitions. Though the outgoing government has proved coalitions can function, politicians still appear to regard them as a historical glitch. But the past five years have seen smaller parties like the UK Independence Party and the Greens become more influential, not less. This verdict, then, could see the normalisation of coalitions in British politics.