W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the great British musical maestros, declared in their 1882 light opera “Iolanthe” that Great Britain was truly stable politically:
“… every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” The Conservative Party and the Liberal Party were dominant in that country in the Victorian age, meaning most of the 19th century, and into the 20th century.
The government of the United Kingdom appeared to be stable, except for sustained pressure for independence for Ireland. The Irish gained independence in 1921, after a bloody struggle. Early in the 20th century, the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party.
Yet now that picture of political stability is changing, dramatically. Two-party dominance clearly is declining. Over the past half century, the Liberal Party and the contemporary successor Liberal Democrats gained, along with the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales.
British politics today appears to be fracturing into multiple parties, no longer two or even three. Brexit, the agonizing effort to break free of the controversial European Union, splintered the governing Conservative Party and now has split the Labour Party as well.
In January, colorful and controversial Nigel Farage announced formation of his new Brexit Party. “Brexit” is shorthand for leaving the European Union. This single-issue extreme political formation also emphasizes hostility to immigration, the other side of the Brexit coin, and a generalized form of nationalism.
Late last month, badly beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she was resigning as head of the government. This followed three devastating defeats in the House of Commons of her complicated initiatives to implement the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union.
Her final surrender to the riptides of competing opinions on Europe in her own party, the nation’s Parliament and the country at large seems to personify the intensity of current political divisions. She will remain in office until the Conservative Party chooses a new leader in July.
Prime Minister May’s resignation came one day after the European Parliament election took place in Britain, and as voting and vote counting was taking place throughout the member nations of Europe’s supranational economic organization. In Britain, the Brexit Party was the big winner with 29 seats. However, the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats also did quite well, and when combined with the pro-Europe Greens/European Free Alliance was on a par with the Brexit Party.
On May 2, local government elections took place in England and Northern Ireland. The Conservatives and Labour lost heavily, along with UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), Farage’s former political home. Again, the Liberal Democrats and Greens made notable gains.
Important to keep in mind is that the British have maintained institutions and the rule of law, even as new political parties are emerging. In our time, the British have maintained stability through institutional as well as policy reforms, generally peacefully. Regional assemblies for Scotland and Wales are one result.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland argues the results show policy does matter. Specifically, continued public sympathy for Brexit drives the new party. Sir John is an increasingly visible and influential expert on politics and opinion trends.
Two-party dominance is declining. Yet while Britain’s politics can baffle, the long-term success of their representative government and competitive party democracy remains clear.
Britain’s stability contrasts with some political trends in Europe - and the U.S.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at email@example.com.