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2015.05.18

Lessons Learned from the UK Elections

JBpress on May 11, 2015

  • Kunihiko Miyake
  • Research Director
    Kunihiko Miyake
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

In an island parliamentary monarchy, a conservative party, after a long period of decline, finally won in the general election. A labor union-backed liberal centrist party was badly defeated. The conservatives, without help from coalition partners, won a simple majority for the first time since the 1990s. Is this the United Kingdom now? No, this is the 2005 general election in Japan.

The media coverage of the latest UK general election has been somewhat less than it deserves, probably because the incumbent UK Prime Minister retained power.

Having said that, the more you know about the political environment surrounding the Tories, the more lessons you can and should learn from the UK election results.

Lesson 1: You cannot count on exit polls
The Economist wrote in its May 2 print edition article entitled "Tearing apart the union" that "This election has been disastrous for the United Kingdom. It may be doomed." Shortly after voting ended on May 7, the result of the UK-wide exit polls was released. The polls, jointly conducted by BBC, ITV and Sky News predicted another "hung parliament."

Neither was correct. The Conservative Party won a simple majority by itself and the Labor Party which pursued a change of government suffered a bitter defeat. Pundits in London explained that the voters appreciated the performance of the Cameron administration including the high growth rate of the UK economy. These sound like wise comments after the event.

Lesson 2: "Brexit" is becoming likely
The UK, against many plausible predictions, seems, at least for the time being, to have avoided the kind of crisis that the Economist predicted. However, in foreign affairs, it is very likely that the United Kingdom will review its relations with the European Union. Prime Minister Cameron declared that he would hold a national referendum on this by the end of 2017.

English-language newspapers have been carrying a new buzz word, "Brexit," which means a UK departure from the EU. In the kingdom, opposition is growing against jobs lost to new immigrants from the EU and the deterioration of educational, medical and other public services. If Cameron's negotiations with the EU fail, a Brexit could be a real possibility.

Lesson 3: Scottish Nationalism
Last but not least is the possibility of the United Kingdom being torn apart. It is noteworthy that in the general election, the Liberal Democrats, a coalition partner of the first Cameron administration, saw their influence shrink tremendously, while the Scottish National Party (SNP), which aims for Scottish independence, has won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland.

The most urgent task facing Prime Minister Cameron must be to prevent Scotland from going independent and the United Kingdom from being divided again. SNP leaders do not hide their ambition to hold another referendum on the Scottish independence. According to reports, voters' fear of a breakup of the nation seems to have led to the Tories' victory in this election.

Those concerns are not a "fire on the opposite shore" for Japan. The following are the lessons Japan can learn from the UK's latest general election.

- The EU in Europe and the CU in Asia
The UK and Japan are both island parliamentary monarchies located off the coast of large continents. For the UK, the European Union is still in the process of developing, while for Japan a powerful and potentially hostile Chinese Union (CU) already exists on the Asian continent. The UK may have the option to leave the EU, but Japan has no option to join the CU.

- The rise of internal minority nationalism
What could be more serious would be the independence of Scotland. The United Kingdom has evolved over time. England annexed Wales in the 16th century, formed a union with Scotland in the 18th century and merged with Ireland in the 19th century (but lost most of Ireland in 1922). The relationships among these regions are far more complicated.

So, what about Japan? The biggest lesson here is that the key to survival for a nation is national unity. I do not wish to go into details, but ask yourself the following questions: Do we have a Scotland or a Northern Ireland in Japan now? If so, are we taking care of them properly? If not, are we fostering nationalism in an internal minority? These are the things Japan badly needs to address in the years to come.

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