The Guardian view on the election result: David Cameron must now put country before party
The 2015 general election has dramatically redrawn the political map of Britain. But not in ways which many politicians, commentators or, in particular, opinion pollsters imagined on election day itself. Even for the overwhelming victors of the night, the and the Scottish Nationalists, it will take some getting used to. Those parties, though, have the thrill of success to sustain them in the days, weeks and months ahead. For the principal losers, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, there are no such compensations. For them, the lessons are equally profound, but not to be solved by a quick fix or an instant soundbite or tweet.
The most important thing for both sides in this election is to try to be honest about why the election turned out the way it did and to grasp what the outcome will now mean for the country. By common consent, Labour fought a decent campaign, but on the day it was defeated by a Conservative party whose economic record and leadership enabled it to capture enough of the centre ground in England, at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, to claim a remarkable – if wafer-thin – majority at Westminster. In England it was, once more, the economy, stupid. In , where the Labour and Lib Dem defeat was more clearly signalled, there was quite simply a revolt. The change in favour of nationalism is epochal.
It is vital to grasp that, even in Scotland, the 2015 result has been produced through the distortions of the first-past-the-post system. This is not the sour grapes of the disappointed. That system has produced distorted results in the past that favoured the parties of the left. This time, however, it has produced an overall Commons majority for the Tories on no more than 37% of the votes cast. The SNP has swept 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland on half the votes cast there, leaving the half of Scots that backed unionist parties all but unrepresented. Ukip meanwhile has won around 4 million votes and secured only one MP. The Greens, more than doubling their votes nationwide, have only a single MP too. There may not be the progressive majority across the UK for which many hoped this time. But there is certainly no popular vote majority for the second Cameron government either.
That government now faces three immense tests of its statesmanship. Each of them will challenge to the full Mr Cameron’s professed wish to unify rather than divide. Each will also test the prime minister’s ability to take the one-nation path of which he spoke overnight without being blown off course by the rightwing backbenchers who will certainly try to do to him what their predecessors did to John Major after the equally unexpected Tory win in 1992. Mr Cameron needs to address each of these three issues as a prime minister not as a party manager. If that means asking for help from other parties, it should not be automatically rejected. The issues are too important for party politics.
The first of these is Europe. Mr Cameron has pledged a renegotiation of Britain’s place in the and a referendum on the outcome before the end of 2017. The issue will dominate the government’s agenda at home and abroad for the coming two years. This is a process which Britain and Europe do not need. But, now that it is going to happen, it is vital for it to be concluded successfully, with a clear vote to stay inside the EU. To leave would be a catastrophe for Britain economically, politically and socially – as well as hugely damaging to Europe too. The national effort to ensure Britain remains committed to an effective and successful EU therefore starts today — appropriately on the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war and the defeat of fascism. It requires the support of all, here and in the rest of the EU.
The second is the future of the UK itself. The task facing Mr Cameron is simply expressed – to keep the country together, not to force it apart. The prime minister has a very bad record on this – as he showed after the Scottish referendum and in the discreditable scare campaigns mounted by the Tory party during the campaign (in which Boris Johnson was so especially unforgivable, with his talk of “ajockalypse now”, that any thoughts of including him in the new cabinet should be carefully rethought). Mr Cameron must raise his game here, and quickly. He must set himself absolutely against the part of his party that is relaxed about Scottish separation. He must respect the votes cast by Scots this week, however much he – and all who believe in the union, including us – may regret them. He must work with all available allies of all traditions to win a hearing for his unionist views. He must take an inclusive view of the need to reform the constitutional settlement in the interests of all, not just of England and the Tories. Here is an issue in which, above all, country comes before party.
The final challenge is to do far more to bring the country back together economically. The government is committed to cuts in public spending, particularly on welfare, which threaten to divide and punish in the social sphere more deeply even than before. If Mr Cameron’s protestations about one-nation Toryism mean anything – and we hope, against recent experience, that they do – he and his chancellor will need to craft a different kind of economic strategy and budgetary regime. Deficit reduction in which the burden is loaded on the poor cannot be the be-all and end-all of that strategy. Infrastructure and economic rebalancing – geographically and sectorally – must be promoted with far greater determination. If Mr Cameron is to govern for the whole nation, he must move beyond and away from the fetishisation of austerity.
The Tory victory poses many other major challenges for Britain: among these are questions such as whether the green agenda will be abandoned now that the Lib Dems are out of government; whether Britain’s reputation on the rule of law and on human rights could survive any abandonment of the European human rights convention and framework; and whether Trident renewal will go ahead as planned. Mr Cameron has won a decisive, but very narrow, victory. He will need far greater wisdom, consistency and vision than he displayed in his first term if, in what will be his second and final term, he is to bring the country back together.