Disunited Kingdom

Looking across the Atlantic these last few days, I've been watching the unfolding political situation in my country with great interest.

We have an electoral system in the UK called 'first past the post' in which the winner in each of the 650 constituencies gets the seat in Parliament and the runner-up gets nothing. There's no reward for coming second. Thus the Liberals who were runners-up all over the country last week ended up with 57 seats even though they got 23% of the vote. On a proportional system which reflected their overall vote, however, they would get 150 seats. The Liberals have been complaining about this disenfranchisement for decades, but there's been nothing they could do about it as the other two parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have benefited from the existing system and have consistently refused to consider changing it. All the Liberals could do was to wait for the moment when neither of the larger parties would have a majority in the House of Commons and so would need Liberal support to form a government. Now, at last, this moment has arrived. The election last week delivered a hung parliament and both sides have begun to court the Liberals for support. The Liberal leader, Nick Clegg, and his band of left of center libertarians must have thought at first that they had finally reached the Promised Land and yet, as the smoke begins to clear, many of them have started to realize that the prize of proportional representation may still be agonizingly out of reach.

The Conservatives won the election in that they gained nearly a hundred seats. Labour, tired and discredited after thirteen years in power, lost heavily and, contrary to expectations, the Liberals made no advances. Instead they actually lost five seats. Labour is the natural ally of the Liberals. They are both left of center parties and Gordon Brown, hanging on by his fingernails in 10 Downing Street, is offering the Liberals exactly what they want -- a referendum on proportional representation. The right wing Conservatives, on the other hand, are opposed to most of the Liberals' policies and cannot offer Nick Clegg what he wants on electoral reform. They achieved only 36% of the popular vote in the election when there was a big swing towards them, whereas the combined Liberal / Labour left of centre vote was 49%. The Conservatives know perfectly well that they would be ensuring that there would never again be a right wing majority government if they agreed to proportional representation. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas dinner!

Nick Clegg is in a terrible position. He knows that if he puts party first and does a deal with Labour he will be accused of standing in the way of the will of the people whose vote has swung so dramatically toward the Conservatives, and yet if he goes into coalition with David Cameron's Conservatives he is almost certainly giving up on a once in a lifetime chance of obtaining the holy grail of electoral reform. For now, he has embarked on the honorable course and opened negotiations with the Conservatives, but any coalition deal has be endorsed by 75% of his party, and it is hard to see how they will agree to anything that falls short of a referendum on electoral reform. The question remains therefore as to whether Nick Clegg will then turn to the discredited occupant of Number Ten who continues to cling spider-like to power as he waits to see the outcome of the talks between the other two parties.

Ironically, this was the election above all others that cried out for a clear result. Strong government is urgently needed to tackle Britain's huge budget deficit, the largest of any country in the G7, and prolonged political uncertainty is likely to lead to a run on sterling and do lasting damage to the British economy. There's little time available for Mr Clegg to make his fateful decision.