Gauging tipping points of British politics

NATIONS that have adopted the electoral system Britain invented would view the dramatic outcome of its general election with some interest. What does Westminster's winner-takes-all model portend when it heightens voter disaffection, as was the case in Scotland? That system, which gives big parties an edge and makes smaller ones parochial, had contributed to neglect up north, which in turn spurred a wave of nationalism there. This development has made the landslide victory by the Scottish National Party (SNP) the "great event" of the election, in the eyes of some British commentators.

It is stunning that the SNP could secure 56 seats with just a 4.7 per cent vote share, compared with the single seat of the UK Independence Party, the third-largest force in British politics with 12.6 per cent of votes. Defeat in Scotland's separation referendum last year had ironically sparked fervent support for the nationalists. Paired with a possible SNP sweep in the Scottish parliamentary elections next year, it could all represent the thin end of the wedge.

In yet another irony, Prime Minister David Cameron, who deserves plaudits for his Conservative Party's largest tally of seats in over 20 years, could plausibly be the last prime minister of the United Kingdom. Outgoing deputy prime minister Nick Clegg was not being far-fetched when he placed Britain at "a very perilous point in our history, where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart". What feeds such concern are political contours showing four regions pulling in different directions: a true-blue Britain dominated by mostly centre-right Tories, Scotland now in the grip of left-wing separatists, Northern Ireland, which is the domain of local parties (the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party and Catholic Sinn Fein), and Wales, a left-leaning Labour stronghold.

Muddling the map is the erosion of the unifying effect of established parties, whose membership is under threat - "as individualism has grown stronger, political tribalism has weakened", noted The Economist magazine. Taking its place partly is a trend, evident in Europe too, of "apartisan", younger voters gathering around single issues.

One such issue bearing grave implications is Britain's continued membership of the European Union. Indeed, Mr Cameron might rue his promise of legislation for an in/out referendum. A "Brexit" could wipe off as much as €300 billion (S$447 billion) or 14 per cent) from Britain's GDP, say respected German institutes. All would gain instead if Mr Cameron resolutely keeps Britain open for business by leveraging all existing and emerging ties, and safeguards its proper place in the world.