Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The disunited colours of Great Britain

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Column in Business Standard, May 8, 2015

Polling Station” read the placard hung round a bronze statue on an Islington council estate in north London when I went on Thursday morning with a friend to watch the British general election unfold. Voting day had dawned sunny and mild after blustery weather, but there were no queues at the community centre. In logistical terms, a British election differs from an Indian one in several ways: no national holiday, no electronic voting machines, no screened-off booths and no indelible ink. The hours are long, from 7 a m to 10 p m, and on open-plan tables, voters use pencil stubs tied to string to mark a cross against their choice on the ballot sheet. The cheerful local council staff was happy to explain the procedure to an Indian visitor. “Do Indian polling officers get paid extra for their duties?” one asked in unabashed solidarity with their Indian counterparts.

Islington North is a solidly middle-class constituency and a safe Labour Party seat. But the party has had a rough ride. The prospect of squeezed living standards for the British middle class – rising taxes and cuts in benefits and social services – has been a key issue of debate in this election. A growing number of immigrants from Eastern Europe – the numbers rose from 167,000 to 1,077,000, a 544 per cent increase in the last 10 years – has stretched welfare subsidies.
The contest between the Conservative Party lead by David Cameron in rolled-up shirt sleeves and Labour headed by the lacklustre Ed Miliband started as a close-run race. But by Friday it was clear that Mr Cameron was set for second term as prime minister with a majority in the House of Commons – a safe pair of hands who can steer the economy and balance a relationship with Europe on sticky immigration issues.

Labour’s decline is due to a major factor that has altered the shape of British politics in the past year. And this is the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by the feisty Nicola Sturgeon. Although it decisively lost the referendum for Scottish independence in September 2014, the party’s membership has since grown from 25,000 to 102,000; it is now the third largest party in Britain. Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats in a 650-member House of Commons once constituted a Labour stronghold – but the SNP has succeeded in demolishing Scottish Labour.

Charismatic, outspoken and a risen-from-the-ranks SNP student leader, the 45-year-old Ms Sturgeon comes from a staunchly working-class, small-town background. Her father was an electrician, her mother a dental nurse; she grew up in a council estate and went to state schools. As women leaders go, she is the polar opposite of Margaret Thatcher, who, like many of her compatriots, she abhorred – “I hated everything she stood for.” The Guardian columnist and ardent Scotsman Ian Jack, in a recent profile, describes her principal virtues as “empathy and an easy, apparently unrehearsed confidence … A third is that elusive quality known as authenticity … that her personality, like ours, has not been bent out of shape by ambition or the needs of politics”. Adopting strong positions against nuclear power stations in Scotland and the House of Lords (“It has no place in a democratic society”), Ms Sturgeon’s ire is reserved for Westminster’s policies of “cosy consensus”. Implicit in her attack is that British mainline parties – Conservative, Labour or Lib-Dem – are caught in the toils of a clubby Oxbridge elite that includes Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Nick Clegg.

A left-of-Labour regional party taking centre stage implies a shift in the power structure of pan-national parties – but it also reflects a more general resentment against the seat of Westminster and the capital city of London. Many Britons, and not just the Scots, perceive London as a bubble of prosperity, a multi-cultural symbol of greed that bears little relation to the rest of the country.

The city is home to more billionaires than anywhere else in the world. Swathes of upper-class Hampstead and Highgate are owned by Russian oligarchs. Harrods belongs to Qatar and fashionable Knightsbridge is derisively dubbed “Brompton souk” for its preponderance of sheesha bars and gold-plated Ferraris. The influx of foreign capital that seeks London as an investment destination is most visible in the frenzy of luxury high-rise developments along the river Thames. Boris Johnson, London’s mayor and future prime minister-hopeful, claims he is mayor of the sixth-largest French city (at least 250,000 French people live here.) Droves of wealthy Greeks, indigent Poles and Rumanians are more recent arrivals, giving a fillip to the voteshare of Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party in the current election. In polyglot London as many as 23 languages are spoken in some of its primary schools.

A commentator during a TV election debate described London “as a first-rate city in a second-rate country”. Britain’s election result is a sign of the disparities of the disunited colours of the country.

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