With five days to go before voting, the UK’s general election campaign has lived up to its reputation among commentators as the closest, most fragmented and most consequential for the country in a generation. This is not because of its soaring rhetoric, outstanding thematic discourse or especially divergent positions on economic and social issues but because the election registers clearly a set of radical changes in Britain’s long established political system and constitutional order. Hence the result is unpredictable, the likely government deeply uncertain and the country’s future looks unsettled until these issues are resolved.
The electoral and media arguments are no longer dominated by the main Conservative and Labour parties in the same way as before. Compared to the 1950s when they commanded 95 per cent of the vote, this election could see their share reduced to 60 per cent. No one expects either Conservatives or Labour to have an overall majority this time, making another coalition or a minority government inevitable. Much of the campaign has concerned the possible governing partners.If, because of greater party pluralism and fragmentation, the brutal winner-takes-all electoral system cannot produce a stable governing outcome as intended, pressure will and should mount to replace it with a system representing popular opinion more effectively.
A related set of constitutional issues has emerged even more starkly from this election campaign. The UK's political union has been put under severe pressure by Scotland's vote last year on independence, even though that option was firmly rejected. The SNP's remarkable consolidation of support since then will give it a landslide of Scottish votes and a potentially determining role in forming the next government. But neither the Conservatives nor Labour know what to make of this huge change. They fear the SNP's separatism but seem incapable of heading it off with convincing change in the UK's structure and functioning. Their demonisation of Scottish voters threatens to inflame an English nationalism unwilling to bear the cost of such an ungainly union between England's 85 per cent of population and those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This question is linked to the deep divide on British membership of the European Union, a recurrent if seriously neglected theme in the campaign.
Compared to these underlying structural changes the campaign's conventional focus on differences in economic, health, housing and social policy has been unexceptionable, reflecting well-established party positions. Personality differences between David Cameron and Ed Miliband concerning their fitness to be prime minister is an important theme which will sway marginal voters, even if both men performed well under pressure.