After spending six weeks in South Asia, I have just returned to the United Kingdom. We face the most critical general election on May 6 in the last thirty, perhaps more than sixty, years. Like 1979, when I was here, and 1945, six years before I was born, Britain is in the midst of a worldwide crisis. In 1945, the country had to deal with the aftermath of the Second World War, which the Allies had barely won. The crisis in 1979 was caused by the collapse of Labour government’s relations with the unions and a deep recession. The country faces an economic crisis of much greater proportions this time.
Two things have contributed to Britain’s woes: the collapse in the US economy visiting the rest of the world and here the governing Labour Party’s own arrogance in the way the current prime minister Gordon Brown managed the economy as chancellor of the exchequer for more than a decade.
In 1979, and again in 1997, economic failure swung the public mood decisively and produced a solid majority for the victorious party. In the former case, the Conservatives came to power and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ended up restructuring the British economy and society. After a traumatic period in which the labour unions were defeated and the Soviet Union collapsed marking the end of the Cold War, the Thatcher-Reagan mission seemed to have been accomplished. But those solutions created new problems.
It may be stating the obvious, but it is nonetheless worth noting that the 2010 general election comes at a time when the UK economy is in dire straits: total national debt, money owed to the private sector and other purchasers of UK gilts, £848.5 billion or nearly 60 percent of the gross national product; the public sector borrowing in 2009/2010 around £178 billion or 12.6 percent; the overall unemployment rate 8 percent, the highest since 1996; more importantly, the working age employment rate 72.1 percent. Roads and government buildings in many parts of the country have fallen into disrepair, heath care and education are facing drastic cuts. The outlook is deeply pessimistic and likely to remain so possibly for a decade.
There has been a steady erosion in trust in the mainstream political parties. And, for the first time in memory, there is a real prospect of a hung parliament, or the winner – Conservatives or Labour – emerging with a narrow lead, or a weak majority.
It means one of two possible scenarios. Either a weak Conservative government led by David Cameron, who is young, attractive but inexperienced like Labour’s Tony Blair at the time of his ascent to power in 1997. Or another Labour government, dependent on a resurgent Liberal Democratic Party, without Gordon Brown as prime minister. But any Labour-Lib Dem deal would be difficult if the Labour Party resisted changing its leader – a less likely event after defeat. In any case, the next government faces an enormous task. It will have to raise tax and cut public services, a recipe for growing public discontent.