Does the rise of minor parties mean the end of the United Kingdom?

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Theresa May's decision to call an early election was one of the worst strategic political missteps in modern times (Image via / @TreeHugger)

Minor parties are becoming more influential as the space occupied by the two-party system shrinks.

Recently, I discussed the Australian political landscape today and the rise of minor parties in the contemporary period. But the political landscape in the United Kingdom is more unstable and changing than Australia’s.

The 2017 UK General election ended with the Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party returned to government with the support of a minor party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

A hung parliament and forming the balance of power is one of the ways minor parties can influence governments without needing to win a large number of parliamentary seats in a two-party system.

The two-party system is diminishing in the United Kingdom and, just like the Australian experience, it isn’t all about winning more seats. The DUP only won ten seats, all in Northern Ireland, compared to 318 for the Conservatives and yet the DUP will have a powerful influence on the policy of the new government despite their lack of numbers.

In Australia, we often hear politicians and commentators talk about the two-party system.

Globally, the two-party system co-exists with one party and multi-party systems. The two-party system is not bound by geography or language, even if the electoral rules between systems are very different.

The two-party system is a part of everyday politics and governance in Australia and New Zealand, Malta, Japan and the United States.

The increased prominence of minor parties – like the Democratic Unionist Party at this election, or like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia – is the story of change and the consequence of the political instability produced by change. Unlike the DUP, UKIP and One Nation have never held the balance of power, but even though they haven’t won many seats in the House of Commons, say compared to the Scottish National Party, they have a profound influence on the policy of the government of the day.

Rather than electoral impact, minor parties like UKIP and One Nation have exercised influence. In 1998, in response to Hanson and One Nation, Australian Prime Minister John Howard abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), officially rejected multiculturalism and tried to extinguish native title. The successful campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, known as BREXIT, appears to be the climax of UKIP’s agenda, The leader most closely associated with BREXIT, Nigel Farage, subsequently quit politics, but Farage will consult Donald Trump. 

The UK Parliament is considerably larger than Australia’s and the representation of minor parties too is also larger, even though the institutional barriers to success for minor parties is higher as well. The first-past-the-post system, as opposed to a proportional or preferential system, represents a serious barrier for minor parties.

The comparative success of the Scottish National Party illustrates how weak UKIP’s electoral success in the House of Common’s has been. 

At the 2015 UK General Election, UKIP won more votes than the Scottish National Party, but the Scottish National Party won 50 times the number of seats. The Scottish National Party won 56 seats at the 2015 UK General Election, with only 4.7% of the vote or 1,454,436 votes. UKIP, on the other hand, won 12.6% of vote or 3,881,099 votes, but only one seat at the 2015 UK General Election.

The Scottish National Party may be the third largest parliamentary party in the UK, but they are unlikely to form government or opposition. The Scottish National Party may influence the UK political landscape in a different way by withdrawing from the UK. They seem likely able to engineer another Scottish independence referendum and so will be a significant agent in making the United Kingdom a little smaller.

Now the Conservatives appear to be able to form a government and claim a mandate for BREXIT, another referendum on Scottish Independence is likely.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told STV’s Scotland Debates programme in an interview before the debate that preparations for a referendum would wait until after BREXIT

“... when the [Brexit] deal is done, when we know the relationship, not just the divorce deal, but the relationship between the UK and the EU moving forward.”

What kind of impact would Scotland leaving the UK have on the parliamentary landscape? What issue could the SNP run on if Scotland is already independent? Will the Labor Party return to Scotland, followed by the Conservatives? Will the absence of Scottish seats in the UK Parliament help the Conservatives?

Influence as success may also mean the resolution of the perceived problem that called the minor party into existence in the first place. 

One Nation influenced the policy of the Howard Government, but it also reduced the space between One Nation and the Government so that voters saw little point in voting for One Nation.

UKIP influenced the policy of the Conservative Cameron Government by forcing the issue of a referendum. Since BREXIT won, there is little further reason to vote UKIP. And UKIP lost its only seat in the House of Commons at this election.

The rise of minor parties like UKIP and the SNP may lead to the end of the United Kingdom.

But the Scottish National Party may discover, like UKIP and One Nation, that success is also their undoing. 

Patrick Keane completed an honours thesis on Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the 1998 Queensland State Election in 2010, and was an advisor to a Labor Senator. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @pckeane2014.

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