The New British Politics

What the UKIP Victory and the Scottish Referendum Have in Common

Newly elected United Kingdom Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell arrives at Parliament, October 13, 2014. Stefan Wermuth / Courtesy Reuters

It has been less than a month since the United Kingdom’s domestic politics captured world headlines with the landmark Scottish referendum on independence. However, yet another (somewhat smaller) political earthquake rippled through the British electoral landscape on Friday with the news that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has won its first seat in the House of Commons in Clacton, southern England. 

UKIP, a party built around a policy of British withdrawal from the European Union, claims that the victory signals a “shift in the tectonic plates of British politics.” And, indeed, it could be a precursor to another UKIP victory in the November 20 by-election in Strood and Rochester, which is also in southern England.

To be sure, some dismiss UKIP’s success last Friday as an electoral flash in the pan. But that ignores the party’s earlier success in May, when it won the European Parliament vote in the United Kingdom, thus becoming the first party other than the Conservatives or Labour to win a national election in more than 100 years.

UKIP’s by-election victory and last month's Scottish referendum may seem unrelated. But they both reflect flux in British politics: a relatively stable two-party system is giving way to more unpredictability. For much of the postwar period, British politics has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour. Between 1945 and 1970, for instance, the two parties collectively won an average of over 90 percent of the vote -- and seats -- in the eight British general elections held in that time.

Yet in the nine elections held between 1974 and 2005, that average fell significantly to below 75 percent. And that has brought about major political changes that are still unfolding to this day. The Liberals have done most in recent decades to break the hold of the two major parties on power. From 1974 to 2005, the average Liberal share of the vote (including an alliance between the Liberals and the United Kingdom’s Social Democratic Party [SDP] from 1983 to 1987) in British general elections

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