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The mourning after

Paul Vallely

Someone stopped me outside church the Sunday after the general election and asked: 'What did you think of that?' Before I could answer he offered his own view: 'I reckon there are a lot of people wishing they could change the way they voted'. A nation which seemed sure-footed in negotiating a world of two-party politics - and could even slot a third party into their electoral thinking - seems to have struggled with the complexity of multiparty Westminster voting.

Adam Smith talked about how the free market was governed by 'an invisible hand' which seemed to create out of the self-interested decisions of different individuals a situation which is to the benefit of all. That has also been the assumption underlying our electoral system. Voters are assumed to know what they are doing. 'It's YOUR victory,' trumpeted the Daily Mail the morning after the vote before. The Mail is not a newspaper given to anything other than certainty. And undoubtedly some will be happy with the outcome. But who exactly is the YOU in the headline?

Unquestionably this most recent election came to a very distinct conclusion - a majority government. But that was only after a very indistinct and confusing election campaign - followed by an even more confusing set of explanations by individual voters of what they had been setting out to achieve. Here are just a few I came across.

There was the man in Cornwall who said he had previously voted Liberal Democrat but had wanted them to go into coalition with Labour last time. Since they had chosen to partner the Tories he switched his vote this time, to punish the Lib Dems. As a result he had let in an even more red-blooded conservatism.

There was the chap in Cheshire who thought the Lib Dems had usefully restrained the Conservatives but felt let down by Nick Clegg's broken promise on tuition fees. So he voted Conservative, ended up with an undiluted Tory administration, and now regretted it.

There was the woman in Scotland who believed David Cameron's line that voting SNP would result in a Labour minority government propped up by Scots nationalists. She quite fancied that. But when she voted SNP she got the opposite of what she wanted: a routed Labour party and Scots in Westminster with no leverage over a majority Tory government.

There was the traditional Labour supporter in Durham who wanted to give his complacent local party a kick up the bum; he would never vote Tory so he voted UKIP to jolt the Labour government he anticipated into firmer action on immigration. There was the woman in Southport who voted Lib Dem because she liked Vince Cable and wanted him to replace Clegg as leader but ended up with Cable defeated and Clegg clinging on to his seat.

And on it went. What united these individuals was that they had voted for one thing and got another, for a variety of reasons. Maybe they were short-sighted or shallow in their thinking. But in each case the opacity of a multi-party vote in some way misled them. As the chap outside church intimated, it seems increasingly hard to justify a sense of common ownership for our politics.

And all of that leaves aside the manifest unfairness of a political system in which the SNP's 5 per cent of the UK vote secured them 56 seats while UKIP's 13 per cent secured just one seat, as did the Green Party's 4 per cent. Under a more proportional voting system UKIP would have had 83 seats, the Lib Dems 53 and the Greens 24. Calls for voting reform will follow, though they will come from those who have lost rather than those who have won power, as ever. But the pros and cons of voting reform are not my point here. All electoral systems are unfair to some, or many, voters.

What is new this time is that the law of unintended consequences seems more clearly at work than previously - and not just among the voters. One of the striking salients about this election was the way that the Scots were used as a bogeyman to frightened English voters. This was a cynical tactic by the Tories who, after the Scottish independence referendum, unleashed the backbench backlash which they had kept under wraps before that poll.

The cry of English votes for English laws from the Tory backwoodsmen underscored the Scots fear that Westminster was about to renege on - or dilute - the promises for greater devolution which all the parties had agreed, in desperation, at the end of the campaign. The Scots smelled betrayal. A few even accused the English of using racist language. Boris Johnson's 'Jock-apolypse Now' jokes did not help. The landslide for the SNP was anti-English as much as anti-Labour.

Cameron threw petrol on the fire with his scaremongering about the SNP holding a Labour minority administration to ransom. It was a no-lose tactic for him since the Tories have been extinct in Scotland since the Thatcher era. It could only rebound on Labour. But it was classic electoral short-termism. Cameron must have known the risk of this. It makes a second Scottish referendum more likely. And growing English resentment could now become as much of a threat to the Union as Scottish nationalism. The Tory leader's short-term gain could leave the UK with the long-term pain of the Scots going independent especially if the UK votes to leave the EU. Cameron hopes he can win on Europe. But he is gambling for very high stakes. For all his 'one nation' rhetoric he could end up as the first prime minister of a Little England shorn of both Scotland and Europe.

This election may turn out to prove that there is no 'invisible hand' in politics, only that alternative phenomenon 'the tragedy of the commons'. That phrase refers to the era which saw the destruction of the nation's common grazing land. It suggests that when individuals act in their own self-interest it does not promote the common good but rather undermines it. A tragedy of the Commons may now be upon us.