Pre-election Britain: a new riddle for Europe
As party lines blur, UK becomes unrecognisable
by Thomas Kielinger
Wed 29 Apr 2015
From the European perspective one is tempted to describe present-day Britain with Winston Churchill’s famous words about the old Soviet Union – ‘a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery’. Everything appears up in the air, making predictions of the election outcome on 7 May a hazardous game.
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Continental Europe, by and large a traditional anglophile redoubt, is having its doubts about Great Britain as we used to know it. The party landscape is fragmenting. The demarcation lines that used to divide the parties are blurring. There is little evidence of a union of minds or, for that matter, of the Britain that Europe or the rest of world would recognise.
There is growing concern about the role Britain wishes to play on the world stage. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to commit the US to incalculable and intractable foreign conflicts appears mirrored in London, where the Conservatives cannot even pledge themselves to the Nato-agreed 2% annual increase in defence spending. The projected combat strength of the military is 82 000 men - a number you can easily fit in the fabled Wembley Football Stadium. Adding to other uncertainties about Europe, one of the few winners from this state of flux must be Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If it isn’t the challenge of radical Islam, it’s the state of the National Health Service, the economy or defence that divides the British from one another.
Three other big issues loom large: Europe, immigration and Scotland. While Angela Merkel, for one, would intuitively plump for David Cameron, a committed free marketeer (although one burdened with a huge national debt), she is certainly not looking forward to the EU referendum Cameron has promised for 2017. Ed Miliband may avoid an unholy brouhaha about Europe, but his left-of-centre tendencies in most other aspects do not endear him to the German chancellor.
None of the British parties seems to know how to curb the unmitigated influx of immigrants, except to make promises of a crackdown that nobody believes will happen. This clearly benefits the nationalist party Ukip and its more drastic proposals.
Only slowly has the continent become aware of the Scottish nationalists, the SNP, and the threat they pose to the cohesion of the UK. Now, fully alerted, Europeans are worried about the emerging split between north and south, the rebellious Scots and ‘the Westminster establishment’.
Who and what could hold Britain together? Long gone are the days of Tony Blair. Europeans cannot understand how a politician once lionised in Britain and beyond has become a name one must not mention in his native land.
Since coalition government, the continental way, is taking root in Britain, it seems a forlorn hope to expect another charismatic prime minister.
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, could well be thrown into the mix to capture the imagination of the people.Yet Johnson could rise to the surface only after a Cameron defeat and considerable Conservative blood-letting: one more element of incalculability. Like the British, Europeans, too, in the face of so much uncertainty, are holding their breath and suspending judgment.
Thomas Kielinger has been London correspondent since 1998 of the German daily Die Welt. A former editor-in-chief of the German weekly Rheinischer Merkur, he is an acclaimed author, including most recently biographies of Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill (C.H. Beck).