How the British and American Political Systems Are Trading Places

As the American political system is growing more rigid and centralized, Britain’s is becoming more fluid and fragmented.

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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 13, 2014, midnight

LON­DON — When the Brit­ish House of Com­mons denied Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on au­thor­ity last Au­gust to bomb Syr­ia, the up­ris­ing was even more stun­ning than the sim­ul­tan­eous re­bel­lion against Pres­id­ent Obama over the same is­sue in Con­gress. While le­gis­lat­ive de­feats are re­l­at­ively com­mon for Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents, the Brit­ish sys­tem usu­ally provides so much lever­age to its prime min­is­ters that the po­s­i­tion has been de­scribed as an “elect­- ive dic­tat­or­ship.”

The Brit­ish vote on Syr­ia was a flat re­jec­tion of Middle East in­ter­ven­tion and a re­buke to 10 Down­ing Street. But it was also something more: evid­ence of a trend to­ward the splin­ter­ing of polit­ic­al in­flu­ence in the na­tion that has provided the world per­haps its pree­m­in­ent mod­el of a par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem that con­cen­trates power in the hands of a single gov­ern­ing party.

That con­sol­id­a­tion of power, which for gen­er­a­tions has defined the Brit­ish polit­ic­al sys­tem, is un­der siege from a con­ver­gence of factors that in­clude dwind­ling voter loy­alty to the two ma­jor al­tern­at­ives; di­min­ish­ing party dis­cip­line in­side Par­lia­ment; and the rising prob­ab­il­ity that no single party will win enough seats to con­trol the Com­mons without for­ging a mul­ti­party co­ali­tion. “For a long time, we were a strong, cent­ral­ized, ex­ec­ut­ive state,” says Peter Rid­dell, dir­ect­or of the Lon­don-based In­sti­tute for Gov­ern­ment, an in­de­pend­ent think tank. “Now you are talk­ing about a much more “¦ un­pre­dict­able elect­or­al struc­ture.” Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Nick Clegg and La­bour Lead­er Ed Miliband are fea­tured on Politico Top Trumps cards. (Chris­toph­er Fur­long/Getty Im­ages)

From the out­set, those de­cent­ral­iz­ing forces have shaped Camer­on’s ten­ure as prime min­is­ter. In 2010, voters ous­ted the Labor Party, which had con­trolled the gov­ern­ment since 1997, but the elect­or­ate did not provide enough seats to Camer­on’s Con­ser­vat­ives for an out­right ma­jor­ity in the Com­mons. That forced Camer­on to ne­go­ti­ate a gov­ern­ing agree­ment with the Lib­er­al Demo­crats, Bri­tain’s ec­lect­ic, cent­rist third party, and to form Bri­tain’s first peace­time co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment since the De­pres­sion.

Over­all, ob­serv­ers and par­ti­cipants alike say the co­ali­tion has held to­geth­er bet­ter than most ex­pec­ted, par­tic­u­larly on the core fisc­al choices the part­ners faced. But enough dif­fer­ences have opened between them — and, even more im­port­ant, between Camer­on and his party’s con­ser­vat­ive van­guard — that Brit­ish polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists say this ses­sion of Par­lia­ment is on track to pro­duce the most le­gis­lat­ive re­bel­lions with­in the rul­ing gov­ern­ment since World War II.

And while the Brit­ish elect­or­ate over the past cen­tury has only rarely denied one party an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity, many here be­lieve it may be­come more the rule than the ex­cep­tion. Voters are in­creas­ingly drift­ing away from the two prin­cip­al parties to­ward al­tern­at­ives such as the UK In­de­pend­ence Party, which has shown in­creas­ing strength be­hind an agenda centered on nativ­ism, isol­a­tion­ism, and cul­tur­al con­ser­vat­ism. “We may find we are in an age where we don’t [gen­er­ate] ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments in a sys­tem that was al­ways de­signed to pro­duce clear out­comes,” says Gra­ham Brady, a Con­ser­vat­ive MP.

All of these in­ter­sect­ing de­vel­op­ments are signs that in the ba­sic op­er­a­tion of their polit­ic­al sys­tems, the United States and the United King­dom may be trad­ing places. Even as the Amer­ic­an sys­tem is grow­ing more ri­gid and cent­ral­ized, Bri­tain’s is be­com­ing more flu­id and frag­men­ted. The U.S. con­sti­tu­tion­al struc­ture, de­signed to en­cour­age com­prom­ise, is in­creas­ingly gen­er­at­ing only stale­mate and con­flict; mean­while, the Brit­ish sys­tem, de­signed to pro­duce de­cis­ive out­comes and un­waver­ing dir­ec­tion, is now de­mand­ing more com­prom­ise and ne­go­ti­ation, both with­in and among the parties.

Put an­oth­er way, while the U.S. is ac­quir­ing more of the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of a clas­sic par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem, Bri­tain may be shed­ding some of them. “The pic­ture of Brit­ish polit­ics with which you and I both grew up needs to be re­touched or even re­drawn,” says An­thony King, a Uni­versity of Es­sex pro­fess­or of gov­ern­ment and a lead­ing stu­dent of Bri­tain’s sys­tem.

For most of Amer­ic­an his­tory, the U.S. polit­ic­al sys­tem has been defined by weak, ideo­lo­gic­ally di­verse parties that only lightly held to­geth­er a wide range of com­pet­ing views and con­test­ing camps. In Con­gress, for gen­er­a­tions, the di­vi­sions with­in the parties — say, between se­greg­a­tion­ist South­ern Demo­crats and the North­ern lib­er­als pro­mot­ing in­teg­ra­tion, or between Re­pub­lic­ans who held isol­a­tion­ist and in­ter­ven­tion­ist views on for­eign af­fairs — were as poin­ted as the dif­fer­ences between them. When Richard Rus­sell and Hubert Humphrey were both Sen­ate Demo­crats, and Jesse Helms and Jac­ob Javits were both Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, party dis­cip­line was a con­tra­dic­tion in terms, and ac­com­plish­ing any­thing in Wash­ing­ton re­quired an enorm­ous amount of bar­gain­ing.

But since the 1960s, both parties have ex­per­i­enced a geo­graph­ic, cul­tur­al, and ra­cial “great sort­ing out” that has left each side’s elect­or­al co­ali­tion much more ideo­lo­gic­ally ho­mo­gen­ous (es­pe­cially the GOP’s). In Con­gress, party-line vot­ing has soared, and the num­ber of ideo­lo­gic­al out­liers — mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans or con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats — has dwindled. At the bal­lot box, split-tick­et vot­ing has fallen, as more Amer­ic­ans vote a straight party line in pres­id­en­tial and con­gres­sion­al races.

The res­ult is a polit­ic­al sys­tem that many ob­serv­ers have de­scribed as in­creas­ingly par­lia­ment­ary, defined by an un­re­lent­ing com­pet­i­tion between two parties that have grown more ant­ag­on­ist­ic and cent­rally con­trolled even as their com­pet­ing vis­ions for the coun­try have be­come more an­ti­thet­ic­al. This has pro­duced an en­vir­on­ment of im­plac­able con­front­a­tion, in which Wash­ing­ton has struggled to reach con­sensus even on is­sues long con­sidered less par­tis­an, such as ag­ri­cul­ture policy.

Across the At­lantic, the United King­dom is mov­ing in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion. For most of its mod­ern his­tory, it provided the world’s pree­m­in­ent mod­el of a tightly con­trolled par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem. As one Brit­ish polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist wrote in 2011, “The [Brit­ish] mod­el is re­cog­nized the world over as de­liv­er­ing strong, stable one-party gov­ern­ment.” One key to that mod­el has been a leg­al struc­ture that provides con­trol of the ex­ec­ut­ive branch to the party that holds the ma­jor­ity in the House of Com­mons. A second has been a polit­ic­al cul­ture that has de­livered lock­step levels of party dis­cip­line in­side that le­gis­lature. The third has been an elect­or­al sys­tem that, since the turn of the 20th cen­tury, has al­most al­ways provided one of the two ma­jor parties — Labor on the left and the Con­ser­vat­ives on the right — enough seats in peace­time to con­trol a Com­mons ma­jor­ity and form a gov­ern­ment without need­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a co­ali­tion with smal­ler parties, much less each oth­er.

This con­ver­gence of factors has af­forded Brit­ish prime min­is­ters as dif­fer­ent as Mar­garet Thatch­er and Tony Blair al­most un­trammeled free­dom to im­ple­ment their agen­das without ef­fect­ive op­pos­i­tion. That tend­ency has in­spired the de­scrip­tion of Bri­tain’s sys­tem as an elect­ive dic­tat­or­ship, not to men­tion the wist­ful jeal­ousy of Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents con­front­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al struc­ture that presents them with trap­doors at al­most every turn. One meas­ure of how much lever­age the sys­tem has tra­di­tion­ally af­forded the prime min­is­ter is that Camer­on’s loss on Syr­ia rep­res­en­ted the most con­sequen­tial Com­mons de­feat for a Brit­ish PM on an is­sue of war and peace since 1782, when weary Brit­ish par­lia­ment­ari­ans re­jec­ted Lord North’s re­quest to con­tin­ue fight­ing the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion after the de­feat at York­town.

But like waves against a sea­wall, big changes in Brit­ish polit­ics and life are crash­ing against that fort­ress of cent­ral­ized au­thor­ity. The longest-de­vel­op­ing of these changes is the de­clin­ing elect­or­al dom­in­ance of the two ma­jor parties.

In 1951, the Labor and Con­ser­vat­ive parties won a com­bined 97 per­cent of the votes cast in the par­lia­ment­ary elec­tion. That dropped to just be­low 90 per­cent by the 1960s, and to around 70 to 75 per­cent in most of the elec­tions from the 1970s through the 1990s. Their com­bined share fell again to about two-thirds in the 2005 elec­tion, when the Labor gov­ern­ment led by Blair won its third and fi­nal term. By 2010, when Camer­on ous­ted Gor­don Brown, who had suc­ceeded Blair as prime min­is­ter, the two parties shared a post­war low of 65.1 per­cent of the total bal­lots cast. About two-thirds of the re­main­ing votes went to the Lib­er­al Demo­crats, the cent­rist party that joined the Con­ser­vat­ives to form a gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion, with the rest dif­fus­ing among smal­ler al­tern­at­ives, in­clud­ing na­tion­al­ist parties in Scot­land and Wales.

The same broad dis­il­lu­sion­ment with polit­ic­al lead­er­ship vis­ible in the United States since the 1960s partly ex­plains the de­cline of the ma­jor Brit­ish parties. But most ana­lysts here place more weight on the fray­ing links between class, cul­ture, and polit­ic­al al­le­gi­ance. Class dis­tinc­tions have of­ten ap­peared more overt and im­mov­able in Bri­tain than in the United States, and the U.K.’s two ma­jor parties re­flec­ted that, with Labor or­gan­ic­ally rooted in the work­ing class, and the Tor­ies re­ly­ing on votes from the middle class and above.

Tim Bale, the au­thor of The Con­ser­vat­ive Party From Thatch­er to Camer­on and a pro­fess­or of polit­ics at Queen Mary Uni­versity of Lon­don, is one of many Brit­ish ana­lysts who de­scribe the parties’ polit­ic­al sup­port through most of the 20th cen­tury as “tri­bal” in its pre­dict­ab­il­ity and dur­ab­il­ity. “You were either one or the oth­er, with class dom­in­at­ing polit­ic­al pref­er­ences,” he said. But those pref­er­ences are much less re­li­able today. “Voters are so much more volat­ile, and they are in­creas­ingly not tied to either of the two ma­jor parties,” Bale says.

Class al­le­gi­ance still shapes polit­ic­al loy­alty more in the United King­dom than it does in the United States, but the Brit­ish sys­tem has seen the same “class in­ver­sion” that has re­shaped Amer­ic­an polit­ics. Like the Amer­ic­an Demo­crat­ic Party, the Labor Party saw its sup­port grow (par­tic­u­larly un­der Blair) among middle-class pro­fes­sion­als who tend to­ward lib­er­al po­s­i­tions on so­cial, en­vir­on­ment­al, and for­eign policy is­sues; mean­while, again like U.S. Demo­crats, Labor has lost sup­port among work­ing-class whites drawn to con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ments against taxes, wel­fare, and im­mig­ra­tion. The Con­ser­vat­ives still rely to a great­er de­gree on voters with more edu­ca­tion than on those with less, but polls by the in­de­pend­ent re­search firm YouGov sug­gest that Labor now draws its sup­port about evenly from across the edu­ca­tion­al spec­trum — a dis­tri­bu­tion that would have been un­ima­gin­able only a few dec­ades ago. “There is still a pos­it­ive cor­rel­a­tion between class and [party pref­er­ences],” says Peter Kell­ner, pres­id­ent of YouGov, “but it is much weak­er than it used to be.” In­stead, the most im­port­ant fis­sure in Brit­ish polit­ics now is re­gion­al, with Labor con­trolling north­ern Eng­land, Scot­land, and Wales, and the Tor­ies strongest in south­ern Eng­land (ex­cept for Labor-fa­vor­ing parts of Lon­don).

The erosion of tri­bal al­le­gi­ances to the ma­jor parties provided more room for the Lib­er­al Demo­crats to emerge as a full-scale third party after the 1980s, al­beit one with a clear ceil­ing. In elec­tions since the Thatch­er era, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats have usu­ally cap­tured between one-fifth and one-fourth of the total vote, of­ten get­ting sup­port from bet­ter-edu­cated urb­an voters drawn to the party’s gen­er­al mix of en­vir­on­ment­al­ism, in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, and fisc­al re­straint. (The party’s lead­er, Nick Clegg, who serves as deputy prime min­is­ter to Camer­on, rep­res­ents an af­flu­ent uni­versity com­munity.) However, the Brit­ish “first-past-the-post” sys­tem re­wards each le­gis­lat­ive seat to the can­did­ate who wins the most votes, without re­quir­ing a run­off if no one ob­tains a ma­jor­ity. As a res­ult, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats’ share of seats in Par­lia­ment nev­er ap­proached its over­all share of the vote. (The party of­ten comes in second in both Labor strong­holds and Con­ser­vat­ive ones.) But by bet­ter tar­get­ing their ef­forts, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats have sig­ni­fic­antly ex­pan­ded their in­flu­ence: They won al­most ex­actly the same 23 per­cent of the vote in the 1987 and 2010 elec­tions, but cap­tured just 22 seats in the former and 57 in the lat­ter.

As Kell­ner notes, the im­plic­a­tions of the Lib­er­al Demo­crats and smal­ler parties win­ning a great­er num­ber of seats in the Com­mons were for many years dis­guised, be­cause the Con­ser­vat­ives be­hind Thatch­er in the 1980s, and Labor be­hind Blair from 1997 through the first part of this cen­tury, dom­in­ated polit­ics any­way. But with neither party en­joy­ing such pre­pon­der­ant sup­port in 2010, the Con­ser­vat­ives won only a plur­al­ity of 306 seats, fall­ing well short of the 326 needed for a ma­jor­ity. That forced Camer­on to forge his co­ali­tion deal with Clegg.


For the Brit­ish polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment, one of the most crit­ic­al ques­tions is wheth­er the cur­rent co­ali­tion is an an­om­aly or a mod­el that may be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon in the dec­ades ahead. Be­fore 2010, no elec­tion had failed to pro­duce a ma­jor­ity — thereby cre­at­ing what the Brit­ish call a “hung Par­lia­ment” — since the 1970s. (And even then the Labor Party tried to gov­ern through an un­stable “minor­ity gov­ern­ment” rather than ne­go­ti­ate a form­al co­ali­tion.) The dom­in­ant view among the polit­ic­al lead­er­ship in the ma­jor parties prob­ably tilts to­ward the ex­pect­a­tion that co­ali­tions will re­main rare. “The party people will say this is an ab­er­ra­tion,” Rid­dell says. Prime min­is­ters as dif­fer­ent as Thatch­er and Blair en­joyed al­most un­trammeled free­dom. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

But he is one of many ob­serv­ers who be­lieve that ex­pect­a­tion may be off the mark. Kell­ner, whose firm con­ducts ex­haust­ive sur­veys on Brit­ish opin­ion, like­wise con­siders it more likely than not that the next elec­tion, sched­uled for May 2015, will pro­duce an­oth­er hung Par­lia­ment. His firm’s re­cent polls have found Labor at­tract­ing just un­der 40 per­cent of the vote and the Con­ser­vat­ives draw­ing about one-third. That’s more than their com­bined share in 2010, but still not enough to guar­an­tee a ma­jor­ity for either side. In ad­di­tion, Kell­ner says, the his­tor­ic pat­tern in which the gov­ern­ing party usu­ally gains sup­port in the fi­nal year be­fore the elec­tion could move the two ma­jor con­tenders to­ward something even closer to a tie in the over­all vote. Labor must also carry the weight of low rat­ings for its lead­er, Ed Miliband. (Miliband was in­tro­duced to the pub­lic in a Shakespearean swirl of drama: After Labor’s 2010 de­feat, he was se­lec­ted as party lead­er when he un­ex­pec­tedly chal­lenged, and beat, his more cent­rist older broth­er, Dav­id Miliband, the out­go­ing for­eign min­is­ter who had been the front-run­ner for the job.) Adding it up, Kell­ner con­cludes: “Un­less something ex­traordin­ary hap­pens, it is very likely we have an­oth­er hung Par­lia­ment. It may be that we are en­ter­ing a peri­od of some dec­ades where the new nor­mal­ity is a hung Par­lia­ment, which has not been the case for the past 80 years.”

Tim Far­ron, a lead­ing Lib­er­al Demo­crat MP, echoes Kell­ner’s pre­dic­tion. “When you’ve got a mul­ti­party demo­cracy, you need one of the two main parties to have a really com­pel­ling nar­rat­ive in or­der to get a ma­jor­ity — either hope or fear — and now there isn’t such a thing,” says Far­ron. “And so that leaves a situ­ation where if there isn’t a com­pel­ling reas­on for one to switch to the oth­er “¦ I think there is prob­ably a 60 per­cent chance of an­oth­er hung Par­lia­ment.”

Polit­ic­al ana­lysts and op­er­at­ives agree that a second con­sec­ut­ive hung Par­lia­ment would be a wa­ter­shed in Brit­ish polit­ics. In most European na­tions, notes Rid­dell, the lead­ing parties as­sume they will need to com­prom­ise and part­ner with at least one of the rivals they run against. That as­sump­tion hasn’t yet seeped in­to the Brit­ish sys­tem, which is still defined by open con­flict (sym­bol­ized by the rauc­ous weekly joust­ing of Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tion Time). Yet if the 2015 res­ult pro­duces an­oth­er co­ali­tion, Rid­dell pre­dicts, the two ma­jor parties in­creas­ingly will be com­pelled to build “an an­ti­cip­a­tion of com­prom­ise” in­to their agen­das. “If you ex­pect co­ali­tion every time, your cul­ture is dif­fer­ent,” he says.

Already, the op­er­a­tion of this co­ali­tion has pre­viewed the changed dy­nam­ics by in­tro­du­cing more com­plex­ity and ne­go­ti­ation to a sys­tem that pre­vi­ously moved a single party’s agenda in­to law with al­most mech­an­ized ef­fi­ciency. On the biggest eco­nom­ic ques­tions, all ob­serv­ers agree, the Con­ser­vat­ives and Lib­er­al Demo­crats have locked arms to a sur­pris­ing ex­tent. Brush­ing past un­waver­ing op­pos­i­tion from Labor, they have uni­fied be­hind the core agenda of fisc­al aus­ter­ity shaped by George Os­borne, the Con­ser­vat­ive chan­cel­lor of the Ex­chequer, the gov­ern­ment’s chief eco­nom­ic of­fi­cial. Brady, the Con­ser­vat­ive MP, is crit­ic­al of the co­ali­tion on oth­er fronts, but on the cent­ral tax and spend­ing is­sues, he says the al­li­ance with Lib­er­al Demo­crats has been “very sol­id.” In­deed, he says, pub­lic sup­port for the agenda has prob­ably in­creased be­cause it’s not just Con­ser­vat­ives tout­ing it. “I think that [fisc­al aus­ter­ity] has been el­ev­ated by the co­ali­tion,” he says. “It has giv­en a re­mark­able solid­ity to that po­s­i­tion.” The res­ult is that, on spend­ing re­straint, the co­ali­tion has pro­duced “a Thatcher­ite gov­ern­ment” with a re­cord in­dis­tin­guish­able from the one a Con­ser­vat­ive-only ma­jor­ity might have amassed, says Bale, the polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist who stud­ies the party.

The ne­ces­sit­ies of the co­ali­tion have com­plic­ated an already fraught re­la­tion­ship between Camer­on and the Con­ser­vat­ives’ far-right flank, which is grow­ing in in­flu­ence, as the tea party has in the United States.

But, in oth­er ways, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats have forced the Con­ser­vat­ives in dir­ec­tions they prob­ably would not have gone alone. Lib­er­al Demo­crats pres­sured the co­ali­tion’s seni­or part­ners to ex­empt more low-in­come fam­il­ies from in­come taxes and to scale back a tax cut for the highest earners. Clegg, in his speech to the Lib­er­al Demo­crat Party con­ven­tion last Septem­ber, lis­ted al­most a dozen oth­er spe­cif­ic Con­ser­vat­ive pri­or­it­ies, in­clud­ing in­her­it­ance-tax cuts, edu­ca­tion re­form, and re­stric­tions on work­place rights, that he said his party had led its part­ner to shelve. On the en­vir­on­ment, he in­sisted, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats had fought the Con­ser­vat­ive ma­jor­ity “tooth and nail” to “keep this gov­ern­ment green.” Camer­on offered a back­han­ded ac­know­ledge­ment of his al­lies’ re­strain­ing in­flu­ence when he re­cently told a con­ser­vat­ive magazine he keeps a “little black book” of policies he would im­ple­ment if the next elec­tion provided him a Con­ser­vat­ive-only ma­jor­ity. “I feel very pas­sion­ately that I want single-party gov­ern­ment,” he told The Spec­tat­or in Decem­ber. These co­ali­tion cracks widened this month when Os­borne signaled the gov­ern­ment’s in­ten­tion to pur­sue fur­ther large re­duc­tions in wel­fare spend­ing after the next elec­tion, and Clegg im­me­di­ately de­nounced the pro­pos­al as “a mo­nu­ment­al mis­take.”

Camer­on and Clegg may be at least partly cho­reo­graph­ing these com­plaints, as Labor Party strategists sus­pect, to mo­tiv­ate each party’s par­tis­ans be­fore the ap­proach­ing elec­tion. But there’s no ques­tion the co­ali­tion has jostled the con­ven­tion­al dy­nam­ics of Brit­ish polit­ics in ways large and small.

One of those ways has been to com­plic­ate the op­pos­i­tion for Labor, which has worked tire­lessly to por­tray Camer­on as fa­vor­ing the wealthy. But one top Labor strategist ac­know­ledges that some of the con­ces­sions the Lib­er­al Demo­crats forced on the Tor­ies (such as ex­empt­ing more lower-in­come fam­il­ies from in­come taxes) have blurred that por­trait. “There is a con­fu­sion in our at­tacks that comes from the fact that they have to keep a wide spec­trum happy,” the strategist said.

For the Lib­er­al Demo­crats them­selves, the co­ali­tion has been an em­phat­ic­ally mixed bless­ing. It has provided their greatest sus­tained in­flu­ence on policy, but their pub­lic sup­port in the polls has tumbled to about half its 2010 level, as left-of-cen­ter sup­port­ers dis­il­lu­sioned by the party’s co­oper­a­tion with Camer­on have aban­doned them for Labor. “In terms of our abil­ity to make a dif­fer­ence, it’s great,” Far­ron says. “In terms of the elect­or­al im­pact on the party, it’s been very harsh in­deed.” Al­most all ob­serv­ers ex­pect the Lib­er­al Demo­crats to lose seats in the next elec­tion, al­though the strong loc­al ties many MPs have built should mean their num­bers in Par­lia­ment won’t fall as far as their de­cline in the over­all vote share would sug­gest.

The ne­ces­sit­ies of the co­ali­tion have also fur­ther com­plic­ated an already fraught re­la­tion­ship between Camer­on and the Con­ser­vat­ives’ far-right flank, which is grow­ing in in­flu­ence, as the tea party has in the United States. While the Tor­ies’ right wing is com­fort­able with Camer­on’s eco­nom­ic agenda, it has al­ways res­isted oth­er ele­ments of his ef­forts to “mod­ern­ize” the party — par­tic­u­larly his sup­port for gay mar­riage and for en­vir­on­ment­al meas­ures such as ac­tion against cli­mate change. And the Right has al­ways viewed Camer­on as too cau­tious in res­ist­ing im­mig­ra­tion and op­pos­ing Bri­tain’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the European Uni­on, which raises the same con­cerns about “sov­er­eignty” among con­ser­vat­ives here that United Na­tions treat­ies do in the United States.

On these so­cial, en­vir­on­ment­al, and in­ter­na­tion­al is­sues, many hard-right Tor­ies grumble that the need to mol­li­fy Lib­er­al Demo­crats has pulled the gov­ern­ment away from their own party’s core con­vic­tions. In par­tic­u­lar, the Feb­ru­ary 2013 vote leg­al­iz­ing gay mar­riage — which passed only with broad sup­port from Labor and Lib­er­al Demo­crats after a ma­jor­ity of Tor­ies re­belled — has rankled grass­roots act­iv­ists. “While quite a lot of the agenda of the gov­ern­ment has been con­ser­vat­ive, there is, non­ethe­less, a con­tinu­ing — prob­ably grow­ing — sense among the tra­di­tion­al Con­ser­vat­ive voters that the Con­ser­vat­ive gov­ern­ment doesn’t share their in­terests,” says Brady, who chairs the “1922 Com­mit­tee,” an in­flu­en­tial or­gan­iz­a­tion of Tory con­ser­vat­ives.

Camer­on has re­spon­ded to that anxi­ety over the past year by shift­ing to the right on re­la­tions with Europe (he’s prom­ised, if reelec­ted, to hold a ref­er­en­dum on wheth­er the U.K. should leave the Uni­on) and im­mig­ra­tion (pro­pos­ing to re­strain be­ne­fits for mi­grants, and per­haps lim­it their entry over­all, which would sharply de­part from E.U. rules). He has also en­trus­ted the Con­ser­vat­ive reelec­tion cam­paign to Lyn­ton Crosby, a hard-edged, base-ori­ented Aus­trali­an strategist, who is ex­pec­ted to sharpen the party at­tacks on wel­fare, im­mig­ra­tion, and Europe — all of which will in­ev­it­ably in­crease ten­sions with the Lib­er­al Demo­crats.

But even so, Camer­on’s cent­rist im­pulses on some fronts, re­in­forced by the de­mands of co­ali­tion, have widened the open­ing for the two-dec­ade-old UK In­de­pend­ence Party to po­ten­tially emerge as a fourth vi­able na­tion­al party, al­though it con­trols no seats in the Com­mons today.

UKIP, as it is known, blends cul­tur­al con­ser­vat­ism, sus­pi­cion of im­mig­rants and in­ter­na­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions, and at­tacks on both wel­fare re­cip­i­ents and wealthy “elit­ists” — al­most pre­cisely the mix of policies cham­pioned in the United States by Pat Buchanan dur­ing the 1990s (and by oth­er nat­iv­ist European parties, such as France’s Na­tion­al Front, today). Nigel Far­age, UKIP’s smooth, me­dia-savvy lead­er, has shown a knack for con­nect­ing with lower-middle-class voters who feel left be­hind by the eco­nomy and both ma­jor parties. (YouGov’s polls show that UKIP runs much bet­ter with blue-col­lar than white-col­lar work­ers.) Al­though the party cri­ti­cizes both sides, it takes spe­cial glee in de­noun­cing Camer­on’s con­ser­vat­ives as ideo­lo­gic­al quis­lings: “Diet Coke com­pared to the full fla­vor of us,” says Tim Aker, who heads UKIP’s policy unit. With sur­veys show­ing the party’s na­tion­al sup­port spik­ing to double di­gits (after it at­trac­ted only about 3 per­cent of the vote in 2010), Aker says ebul­li­ently, “2015 is a break­through elec­tion for us”¦. You’ve got four-party polit­ics now.”


That’s a bit pre­ma­ture. Be­cause of the first-past-the-post elect­or­al sys­tem, even if UKIP main­tains its ex­pan­ded sup­port through the elec­tion — an un­cer­tain pro­pos­i­tion — it wouldn’t gain many, if any, seats in Par­lia­ment; even Aker pre­dicts only one to five. But Tor­ies jus­ti­fi­ably fear that by si­phon­ing off enough right-lean­ing voters, UKIP could tip many oth­er seats from Con­ser­vat­ive to Labor.

With more com­batants and mul­tiple bat­tle­fronts, the Brit­ish sys­tem is be­com­ing less Guns of Au­gust and more Game of Thrones.

Among Con­ser­vat­ive MPs, the fear of be­ing out­flanked on the right is re­in­for­cing an­oth­er strik­ing trend in Brit­ish polit­ics: the break­down of lock­step party unity in le­gis­lat­ive votes. Philip Cow­ley and Mark Stu­art, Uni­versity of Not­ting­ham pro­fess­ors who study vot­ing trends, re­por­ted re­cently that with at least some mem­bers of the gov­ern­ing co­ali­tion dis­sent­ing on nearly 40 per­cent of its votes, Par­lia­ment since 2010 “re­mains on course to be the most re­bel­li­ous since 1945.” The par­tic­u­lar com­plic­a­tions of co­ali­tion may be in­flat­ing those num­bers, but the trend to­ward fray­ing loy­alty is lar­ger. The post-World War II re­cord for re­bel­lions that this Par­lia­ment is likely to shat­ter is held by the Labor gov­ern­ment that the co­ali­tion ous­ted. “Party dis­cip­line is a shad­ow of its former self,” says An­thony King, the long­time stu­dent of Brit­ish polit­ics and a coau­thor of the new book The Blun­ders of Our Gov­ern­ments.

The root of this change, many Brit­ish ob­serv­ers be­lieve, may be the same ebbing of tri­bal loy­alty that is erod­ing the two parties’ share of the over­all vote. As at­tach­ments to the parties weak­en, MPs feel more pres­sure to ap­peal to voters as in­di­vidu­als, which en­cour­ages them to dis­play more in­di­vidu­al­ity in their vot­ing re­cords. Once sus­pect, in­de­pend­ence is now of­ten an elect­or­al as­set. When Brady, for in­stance, resigned a few years ago from a party lead­er­ship post in protest of a Con­ser­vat­ive edu­ca­tion-policy shift that was un­pop­u­lar with his con­stitu­ency, it “was fully six months be­fore I left my home without a stranger com­ing up to me and shak­ing my hand,” he says. “By be­ing more in­de­pend­ent, more the loc­al cham­pi­on, I think more of us can build a level of sup­port in our loc­al con­stitu­en­cies sep­ar­ate from party.”

The ex­ist­ence of the co­ali­tion has ac­tu­ally fa­cil­it­ated these re­bel­lions, by mak­ing it easi­er for the Con­ser­vat­ive right flank (the most fre­quent dis­sent­ers) to op­pose Camer­on without ac­tu­ally de­feat­ing him, be­cause the Lib­er­al Demo­crats can usu­ally com­pensate for their lost votes. But the tur­moil has pro­duced some losses for Camer­on — on polit­ic­al re­form, European Uni­on fund­ing, and the Syr­ia au­thor­iz­a­tion — and few here would be sur­prised if le­gis­lat­ive de­feats for the gov­ern­ing party be­come more com­mon.

The erosion of party dis­cip­line re­in­forces the oth­er big changes in Brit­ish polit­ics: the de­clin­ing share of the ma­jor-party vote, the emer­gence of a third (and po­ten­tially, with UKIP, even a fourth) vi­able na­tion­al party, and the grow­ing like­li­hood of fu­ture gov­ern­ing co­ali­tions. All are stead­ily trans­form­ing a polit­ic­al sys­tem built on bin­ary trench war­fare in­to a jumbled com­pet­i­tion with more com­batants and mul­tiple bat­tle­fronts: less Guns of Au­gust and more Game of Thrones.

This new en­vir­on­ment means that Brit­ish policy in­creas­ingly will re­quire ne­go­ti­ation, ac­com­mod­a­tion, and what Rid­dell, the In­sti­tute for Gov­ern­ment dir­ect­or, calls “per­petu­al com­prom­ise” among a wider range of fac­tions and in­terests than in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. That shift will provide a vivid coun­ter­point — and likely some im­port­ant les­sons — as the Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al sys­tem, spurred by un­re­lent­ing po­lar­iz­a­tion, bur­rows more deeply in­to the trenches.

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