Elections electrify countries where they are held, but in most cases, they make little difference. In the case of Britain, where elections took place on Thursday, it was of great importance to the British people as well as Europe. Who won is not the issue. What made the election significant was that in Scotland, 45 per cent of the public voted recently to leave the United Kingdom. This has been dismissed as an oddity by all well-grounded observers.
However, for unsophisticated observers, the fact that 45 per cent of Scotland was prepared to secede was an extraordinary event. Moreover, the election matters because UKIP, formerly the United Kingdom Independence Party, is in it, and polls indicate that it won about 12 per cent of the votes, while winning a handful of seats in Parliament.
This discrepancy is due to an attribute of the British electoral system, which favours seats won over total votes cast. UKIP’s potential winnings do not seem very significant. However, the party represents a movement in Britain that is not unlike what is going on in the rest of Europe, and in addition, creates a new dimension to Britain’s strategic policy that might well be important. Most of the votes that UKIP attracted came from former Conservative voters. This means that Prime Minister David Cameron is in a tight rope. It however does not change Britain’s strategic position much. UKIP and the Scottish vote might.
The United Kingdom is a European nation. Its national identity emerges from a shared history, language and culture. The people are born into a European nationality. It is not easy to become something whose essence is in birth. In this sense, European nationalism is profoundly different from American nationalism, whose identity is built around the accommodation with a dynamically changing culture.
European nationalism simultaneously binds and repels. It binds those with the common heritage together. It repels, purposefully and incidentally, those who are different. This is why the Scottish referendum is so significant. Even after 300 years, 45 per cent of Scots were prepared to think of Scotland as an independent nation, based less on any specific issue than on the principle of divergent national identities.
The British election represents the current state of Europe. There is the deep ambivalence about the European Union and the rise of the anti-European parties not yet ready to govern but still affecting the system (as shown by Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership).
There is the anti-immigration sentiment, currently driven by fear of Islamist terrorism and the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe taking some of the lower-wage jobs, but actually having deeper and less tractable roots. Finally, there is the rise of nationalist movements within countries where it had been thought that the question of nationality had been settled centuries before, drawing its energy from the questions raised in the other movements and becoming unexpectedly powerful.
Hence, the United Kingdom, in its understated way, points to the fundamental trends in Europe. First, the mainstream parties, regardless of formal ideology, are more or less committed to the idea of the European Union. Second, there are emerging political parties that are committed to independence, both in the sense of not being answerable to Brussels and in the sense of preserving the foundation of national identity. Finally, that foundation is undermining Britain’s unity, because an integral part of the United Kingdom has been toying with the idea of independence.
All of this has geopolitical consequences. This is not because Britain is going to lose or gain an empire. It has already lost one, and it is not about to gain another. But Britain is a strategic country, partly because of geography and partly because of power, and what happens to it matters more to the world than what happens to some other countries.
Let us consider the British situation not in terms of domestic political parties but in terms of geopolitical position. When Britain maneuvers for its national interest, it must address what it means by nation. And throughout Europe, the definition of nation has become less forgiving, every distinct group has the right to national self-determination. Moreover, as Britain maneuvers, the question arises as to whether the maneuvers are in the interest of all of Britain, or only England.
The Scottish National Party does not have a clear platform on all matters. It does have a singular moral stance, which is that Scots ought to be interested in Scottish national interest and cooperate with England based on that rather than on a somewhat forced amalgamation.
With the conclusion of the election, the emerging question is precisely what Britain is and what its place is in the world. The Scottish has raised the question of whether there is a British nation at all, and whether unity supports Scottish self-interest.
All of these profoundly affect Britain’s ability to position itself between Europe and the United States, one by questioning Europe’s worth, the other by questioning Britain itself. It is institutionally impossible for the mainstream parties to take UKIP and the Scottish National Party seriously. They are so outside the framework of British strategic culture that they seem mad. They are challenging the assumption that provides the basis for British strategic culture.
Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that in the long run they will not win. UKIP may be simplistic, but there is virtue in being simple. And the Scottish National Party, decades after the fall of the British Empire, is asking what it means to be British and why do the Scots care. It was hard for Rome to maintain its unity after it lost its empire. Britain has not yet fully played out the drama that began in 1945 and the outcome of the recent election and how it plays out thereafter would affect (positively or negatively) the future of Europe.