The great divergence: does British politics even exist anymore?

With talk of party systems rather than one “system”, is it right to discuss “British politics”?

Class used to be the be all and end all in British politics, but right now age is the best demographic predictor how someone will vote, however, the role of the constituent-nation someone lives in also has a big impact. British politics has changed beyond recognition in recent years so much so it begs the question: should we even call it that anymore?

With the exception of Northern Ireland, the main battles across Scotland, England and Wales were between Labour and the Tories. Battles fought against the SNP and Plaid were minor skirmishes that had no striking impact on the overall UK political system. Fast-forward to the post-1999 landscape and the picture looks very different.

The rise of the SNP in 2007, their majority win in 2011, and their victories in 2015 and 2016 tell us that Scotland has a very different party system. The main centre of political gravity north of the border is in Holyrood not Westminster. When one thinks of Scottish politics, one thinks of Edinburgh not London, at least at first.

One counter-argument to this is that the 2017 election saw the return of the Scottish Conservatives and the surprise resurrection of Scottish Labour. While Labour’s return north of the border can probably be put down to Jeremy Corbyn’s radical programme, the rise of the Scottish Tories was not an endorsement of Theresa May’s vision - it was a vote for the union and a vote for the charismatic Ruth Davidson, who has perfectly cultivated her brand, and created a narrative that she can save the union. 2017 saw signs of a return to “British politics” in Scotland on the face of it, but voters were arguably voting for different things when they put their crosses next to Tory candidates.

Next take UKIP, who were at the end of the day a flash in the pan. However, they only really succeeded in England – winning 14.1% of the vote – while in Scotland they struggled to make an impact. Numerous reasons contributed to UKIP’s lack of success in Scotland – which I have outlined here in the New Statesman – such as the more competitive party system in north of the border (helped by its proportional voting system), the less hostile attitudes to the EU and immigration, as well as the fact that UKIP could have been seen as a de facto English national party. UKIP briefly succeeded in England, but in Scotland they were nothing more than an unwanted spec of angry political dust, strengthening the argument that British politics is no longer something we can talk about and know for sure what it means.

As for Wales, recent electoral events in nation have cemented Labour’s dominance, but on the whole, Wales’ electoral patterns follow England’s. Like England, Wales voted for Brexit, and like England, Wales gave significant support to UKIP in 2015, and did the same one year later, giving the country its first ever elected UKIP Assembly Members. When commentators talk about British politics, a lot of what they may be talking about limited is to England and Wales alone.

Overall, British politics has always had multiple poles in terms of the differing party systems. Northern Ireland has been the exception for decades, but Scotland’s recent divergence is making us question what British politics actually is. The main cleavage in Northern Ireland is an agent's stance on the union, the same can now be said of Scotland. As for England and Wales, on the whole their party systems are strongly linked, but in a multi-polar Britain with devolution in Wales but not for England, how long can that last?