The iconic 1957 Times headline “Heavy Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off” once aptly captured the United Kingdom’s sense of its unique place in the world. In the British popular imagination, the U.K.’s cultural differences from the rest of Europe extend to its politics. Whereas politics on the continent is based on what Britons see as messy compromises, shifting alliances and hidden coalition deals sealed before the votes are even counted, British parliamentary democracy, embedded in a winner-take-all electoral system, rests on the clarity and legitimacy of a binary choice. When disgruntled, voters can simply “throw the bums out” and elect the shadow Cabinet-in-waiting. But that old comparison fails to reflect how British politics has taken a distinctly Continental turn in recent years, even as British politicians stoke anti-European Union sentiment and voters look increasingly inward.
Ahead of next month’s uncertain parliamentary elections, at the very moment the U.K. seems to be pulling away from Brussels, its political scene now resembles that of Spain, France or Belgium more than Canada or the United States. Alternating one-party governments, long the defining characteristic of modern British politics, seem to be a thing of the past, and multi-party governments look set to become the new normal in British politics. The upcoming election promises yet another hung Parliament, even though 62 percent of voters would prefer a single party to govern, compared to only 29 percent who want to see another coalition, according to recent polling. But this time, it will be even harder to form a workable majority in Westminster, as the Liberal Democrats—the preferred coalition partner of both the Conservative and Labour parties—are expected to do badly. That is bound to further the U.K.’s Continental drift, which is particularly striking in three domains: economic policy, institutional matters and foreign policy.
The 2008-2009 economic crash hit British politics so hard because it was a crisis not only of deregulated finance, but also of the ideas that had enabled and fueled it. Neoliberalism, which touts the rationality of free markets over meddling states, needed to be rescued by costly government interventions when the system broke down. Yet during the recession and the much-delayed recovery that followed the 2010 election, neither Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government nor the opposition Labour Party were able to provide a genuine and viable alternative to the beleaguered neoliberal policies of the past.