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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: April 24, 2010 NO. 17 APRIL 29, 2010
Electoral Choice
Changes are afoot as the British head to the polls



Britain will hold its first election in five years on May 6. And unlike any since the early 1990s, it is very hard to see who might win. Current Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labor Party is unpopular and, despite working hard to keep the recession from turning into a depression, is blamed for the huge levels of debt Britain has.

Conservative leader David Cameron, meanwhile, is ahead in the opinion polls, but not by a large enough margin to feel confident that a victory is certain. He is seen as fresh, dynamic and young, but has been accused of lacking substance and having a privileged background that makes it hard for him to relate to ordinary people.

In between is the third party, the Liberal Democrats. Despite good poll results and support from as much as a quarter of the electorate, they remain locked in a "first-past-the-post" system that means they will never get the number of parliamentary seats their votes would merit.


TRIO DEBATE: British Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party Gordon Brown, leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron and leader of the Liberal Democrat Party Nick Clegg are seen participaing in a live television debate in Manchester on April 15 (XINHUA/AFP) 

Elections in the UK, like anywhere else, are about domestic issues. And topmost of these is the economy. The UK is just emerging from six quarters of negative growth. With only 0.4 percent growth at the end of 2009, the recovery, such as it is, is weak. For Labor, government spending needs to continue, and cuts, when they come, must be careful, and phased over a decent length of time. For the Conservatives, it is best to face up to the debt now, and to start to repay it—not least to maintain international confidence in the British system. They are proposing immediate cuts. But there is little consensus amongst economists over which side, in the end, is right.

Foreign affairs

What might a Conservative win mean for the UK's relations with other countries and, in particular, with China? It is not likely that Cameron has thought much about this. As an opposition leader, his main priority in the last few years has been showing the electorate and the Labor opposition that he understands domestic issues, such as taxes, education and social services.

Foreign affairs, that is, have come a long way down this list. On some foreign policy issues, however, Cameron will almost certainly have to make up his mind quickly—if he gets elected—about what he will need to do. Like previous prime ministers, he will find that foreign affairs will take up more of his time than he would have originally thought.

On involvement in Afghanistan, it is hard to see him making many changes. The UK is very aware that the United States is the dominant partner in this conflict. Downing Street also knows that, having largely withdrawn from Iraq, UK forces in Afghanistan are under even more pressure to contribute, and to help in the surge to contain, and defeat, Taliban forces.

Moreover, as one analyst in London put it earlier this year, "defeat for us and the United States would mean the Taliban sitting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul."

And Cameron, despite the big spending cuts he has vowed to make, will find this area will continue to be a huge cost—supporting thousands of British soldiers there with no short-term victory in sight, with casualties continuing to mount. Still, the Conservatives supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and military operations in Afghanistan ever since. So a major policy change is not likely.

For Europe, things are different. Historically, the Conservatives have been torn over the UK's role in the European Union (EU). Edward Heath, a Conservative Prime Minster, was the key person to take the UK into the EU.

But many conservatives are deeply skeptical of what the EU represents. They accuse it of being overly influenced by France and the Germany, of costing the British too much, and of being a huge, Europe-wide bureaucracy—one with powerful, yet unelected bureaucrats taking decision-making powers away from the UK, while trying to build a transnational super-state.

Policy on the EU is the one foreign issue that does have impact in domestic voting intentions. To this end, one smaller party, the UK Independence Party, has complete withdrawal from the EU as its sole stand. But they are likely to do reasonably well in the May elections.

Cameron, if elected, will be faced with three options. He will have to either sound tougher on the EU, and try to extract concessions on how much funds the UK gives to it, and what other benefits it gains. Or he will need to be pragmatic and admit the benefits of membership, keeping things as they are. He might even try to take a more proactive, central role in the EU.

The first will risk alienating important EU partners (the EU is by way and afar the UK's biggest trade partner). The second will risk alienating many of his own party members, and the voting public. With the third, he will come against some tough French and German resistance. His relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite both being conservatives, are not good since Cameron authorized his party to withdraw from a coalition of conservative parties at the European Parliament.

Whatever he does, EU policy is going to be one of the biggest problems for Cameron, especially as it looks increasingly likely that economies like Spain and Portugal will need help from European partners in dealing with their huge debts, just as Greece recently did.

Any view in the UK that Britain is paying to clear up the problems of other countries, while still not a member of the euro zone, would be fatal.

With the United States, while Cameron is likely to want to deepen the "special relationship" and stay as close to Washington as possible, there is increasing awareness of how peripheral to the world's last remaining superpower the UK is.

Indeed, President Barack Obama has even weaker links with the UK than his predecessor George W. Bush. He is returning the United States more and more to a Pacific-oriented, rather than a European-oriented, foreign policy perspective.

Obama's announced decision not to attend a major EU summit in Spain in May has been interpreted as a further signal that there has been a quiet, but definite downgrading of relations with the whole of the EU.

The only way the UK can do anything about this is to work within the EU to make its economic and political importance clear, and show tangible areas where this is the case, to the Unite States. Once again, this means Cameron will have to decide either to work more within the EU, with all the problems that pose for his party, or avoid this.

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