Electoral and Other Consequences

As mentioned earlier, because this squeeze episode was so recent, we comment here only on electoral effects. And compared to our earlier cases, there were multiple electoral events during this squeeze episode—not just local, central, and European elections, but also elections to the UK's post-1999 devolved parliaments and assemblies in 2011 and 2016, and three referendums, one on the electoral system in 2011 (part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats the previous year), a second, in Scotland only, on Scottish independence in 2014, and a third on the UK's membership of the European Union in 2016.

As for general election results, the 2015 election outcome perhaps most closely resembles that of 1922 (discussed in Chapter Three), at least in England and Wales, in that the Conservatives were rewarded by the voters with a higher vote and seat share, while their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were heavily punished and reduced to a handful of seats. That outcome is consistent with the idea of 'asymmetric punishment' for spending squeezes (as between left-of-centre and right-of-centre parties) that we discussed in Chapter One.

But the parallel between the 2015 and 1922 general election outcomes did not extend to Scotland. In that case, the outcome resembles the 1918 election in which in one part of the country (the twenty-six counties of Ireland in 1918, Scotland in 2015) the result was an overwhelming victory for a nationalist party (Sinn Fein in 1918, the SNP in 2015) opposed to Westminster rule, and corresponding defeat for Labour and Liberal Democrats as left-of-centre unionist parties, each reduced to only one Scottish seat in the Westminster Parliament. The SNP also retained its dominance in the devolved Scottish Parliament in the Scottish elections the following year. What remains unclear at the time of writing is whether this dramatic weakening of support for the Union in Scotland should be attributed to this particular fiscal squeeze (in the same way that the Thatcher squeeze of the 1980s, discussed in Chapter Eight, was commonly said to have built up support for devolution two decades before) or whether it has other or longer-term causes.

Equally elusive is any link between fiscal squeeze and the outcome of the 2016 referendum on the UK's position in the European Union (which, unlike the 2011 'Alternative Vote' referendum and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, did not produce a majority for the status quo but a narrow majority for 'Brexit', at least in England and Wales). Some commentators attributed that result to the numbers in which working-class voters in traditionally safe Labour seats, particularly in the North of England, turned out to vote for the 'Leave' option, contrary to what Labour and the Liberal Democrats campaigned for. But again, the link between fiscal squeeze and that outcome is tenuous, especially given that the two other referendums over the period produced majorities for the status quo.

Still, two things do seem to be clear. One is that in this case, unlike most of the other fiscal squeezes we have discussed, major constitutional issues relating to two levels of 'union' were broached during the fiscal squeeze, with effects on the structure and even continuing existence of the UK as a state that cannot yet be assessed. The other is that those political commentators (such as Legrain 2010) who saw the 2010 general election as an election that it would be best to lose (on the grounds that the austerity policies the winners would have to enact would thereafter condemn them to electoral perdition for years to come) were at most only half correct. While the electoral fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is consistent with those prophecies, that of the Conservatives is decidedly not.

 
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