The sun set long ago on the British Empire. An election this Thursday will go a long way toward clarifying whether the sun is setting on Great Britain, as well.
Anglophiles and royalty lovers everywhere got a rush of good feelings from the birth Saturday of a princess, Charlotte, to William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The infant is fourth in line to the British throne.
Royals aside, the election a few days later normally would be (and many still insist should be) about the economy: Should Prime Minister David Cameron be rewarded with a second term for a recovery that has generated a lot of low-paying jobs and funneled disproportionate benefits to London and its surroundings? Have budget cuts been ill-targeted and too severe?
Make no mistake, however: The crucial theme as the United Kingdom faces its most unpredictable election in decades, is dis-union. If Charlotte grows up to be queen one day, what, exactly, will she be queen of?
Polls suggest that the election will be extremely close; the aftermath a messy affair. Britain’s two-party system has landed with a thud in the dustbin of history. While the Conservatives and Labor will remain the biggest vote getters, the balance of power may well rest with one or more third parties. The strongest of them, the Scottish National Party, wants independence for Scotland.
As the country tries to sort out what it means to be British, and whether that even matters anymore, it is pulling inward, ceding bit by bit its oversized influence in world affairs.
If the Tories win, Cameron promises a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. He argues for remaining, but the promise of a vote speaks to frustration among conservatives over EU regulations. Cameron says the UK should be able to renegotiate its terms of membership.
Britain’s defense posture is also up for debate — particularly the future of the nuclear submarines that have helped preserve its status. And there are real questions about whether its voice and its influence will remain as strong in global affairs. On the horizon for Washington: How valuable is a “special relationship” with a second-rate power?
The questions are even thornier at home. While Scots voted against independence last September, the issue is nowhere near dead. Scotland is traditionally Labor country, but instead of fading after the failed referendum, the National party is managing to consolidate its hold. As a result, chances are good that it will emerge this week as the third-largest party in Parliament. Labor would need its support to form a government.
Another referendum on independence is probably only a matter of time.
A poll conducted for the Economist late last month indicated that substantially more British citizens think Scotland will be independent in 20 years than think it will remain part of the United Kingdom.
The Scottish party’s likely showing on Thursday “is about to leave Britain’s 300-year-old, once swaggeringly successful, union of nations looking desperately enfeebled,” frets one analyst. “Who wants to be British? What is Britain for?” The conduct of the campaign hasn’t really focused those questions.
But politicians in Wales and Northern Ireland are certainly paying attention. When the Scots voted independence down, Cameron promised them more autonomy — and that the principle would be applied across the country. Wales has its own — smaller and less-successful — version of the Scottish National Party called Plaid Cymru. The two parties are very close.
The English are watching, too.
Cameron is feelings some pressure on the right from Nigel Farage and his anti-immigration, anti-EU UK Independence Party, which has made a lot of noise and some small inroads in England.
Farage accused the SNP recently of being openly racist toward the English. But British disunion is such that hard feelings in England are also directed at other English.
While London prospers, many other areas struggle. Farage may be aiming to build support among working-class English alienated by the wealth and glitz of London. But this report suggests that, particularly to people in northern England, British politicians seem to act primarily for the good of London and its immediate surroundings — and the Scots’ solution doesn’t look so bad.
However, even London isn’t united. Its financial district, one of the world’s most important, manages — and makes — vast sums of money. The city serves as a magnet to some of the richest people in the world. The newest wave is the super-rich Africans.
Meanwhile, some of the poorest parts of the country are just miles away from Parliament. To the well-off and many visitors, London looks like “a first-rate city with a second-rate country attached.”
On Thursday, we’ll find out how many residents of that “second-rate country” have decided the relationship doesn’t work anymore, and want a divorce.