The paradoxes of both Britain’s electoral system, and the country’s evolving identities, came into focus this week.
Though it failed to secure independence for Scotland last year, the Scottish National Party swept to an unprecedented victory north of the border, winning 56 of a possible 59 seats at Westminster. Labour increased its vote share but lost seats; the Liberal Democrats lost not only votes, but so many seats that the party was almost extinguished in Parliament. The Green Party, which won only slightly fewer total votes than the SNP, and the anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic UK Independence Party—which won nearly three times as many—each took just one seat. And despite a surge in votes for smaller parties, the ruling Conservatives won the clear majority they had failed to secure at the last election.
In the past months, the UK had begun to see itself as a more multifarious country, where nationalists, greens, and centrists might all find their political places. The outright Conservative win is a reminder that the constituency system isn’t designed to allow for a wide diversity of thought, but to provide leaders. Yet it’s also delivering increasing geographical polarization: Labour’s red clustered around urban centers; the Conservatives’ blue blanketing the country everywhere else; and Scotland dyed a decisive SNP yellow.
Scotland is, of course, the big winner, gaining a clear identity in relation to Westminster. The rest of the UK will have to contend with its multitudinous voices finding representation in one party, this time without the check of a coalition partner or, for now, any strong opponent. If Scotland and the rest of Britain were to separate tomorrow, each would be the closest it has come to a one-party state for a very long time. That’s an alarming prospect.