British voters send a message, but saying what?

British voters send a message, but saying what?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In one of the most interesting, most exciting, and most watched elections in modern British history, the people of Britain sent a signal of dissatisfaction to politicians in their own country — and perhaps around the world. They denied a majority to both the Conservatives and the Labour Party and were not prepared to trust the Liberal-Democrats. Their message to all politicians: Get the place in order or we will throw you out, too.

The hung Parliament that the election produced was the first in Britain since 1974. The coalition government that has been formed by Tories and the Lib-Dems looks better on paper than it may well prove to be over time. How long this shot-gun marriage will last is not clear, but more will be known when the new government presents its first major proposals to stabilize the British economy. Its revised emergency budget, to be presented in 50 days, will call for major programmatic cuts as well as proposals on tax reform.

For Anglo Jewry, for British foreign policy in general, and for Israel in particular this election presents some curious results. According to the London Jewish Chronicle, the new Parliament will seat 23 Jewish M.P.s: 12 Conservative, nine Labour, and two Liberal-Democrats. In a Parliament consisting of 659 Members, that’s 3.49 percent. The total Jewish population in Britain is under 300,000 or less than 0.5 percent.

(Due to the British single-member constituency system, Jews are rarely elected to Parliament except from districts which have a significant Jewish population. In fact, Jews rarely stand for election in districts without a core of Jewish voters. Compare that to, say, Wisconsin, which despite a Jewish population of 0.5 percent is represented in the U.S. Senate by two Jewish Senators, Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl.)

Jewish leadership in Britain offered traditional congratulatory messages to the new government but has suggested a “wait and see” attitude on substantive policy directions. The elections did allay much of British Jewry’s concerns about the power that might be assumed by the Lib-Dems, which despite major successes in the television debates and with its telegenic leader Nick Clegg, actually lost five seats in the new Parliament. The Lib-Dems, while seemingly sympathetic to Jewish concerns on domestic issues, would likely make Britain even less sympathetic toward Israel.

For now, the main international focus of the new government will be international economics, especially the recent bailout of Greece and the decline of the euro as well as the pound. The new coalition will reassess Britain’s continuing role in Afghanistan, the possibility of increased economic sanctions against Iran, and Britain’s immigration policy.

While former Prime Minister Tony Blair is likely to continue to head the “Quartet” and its efforts to expedite an Israel-Palestinian peace process, the British government is unlikely to seek a major role in the on-going discussions. It will not want to have any unnecessary diversions, especially from the Middle East.

In the run-up to the election, Clegg, now the Deputy prime minister, reiterated views that he articulated most clearly during the 2008-09 Gaza War, that Israel must do more to move a peace process along. While David Cameron, the new prime minister, has shown more understanding of the Israeli side of the debate and appeared more sympathetic to Israel’s security needs, it is likely that the British will follow the United States policy in the Middle East.

This is not to suggest that Britain’s historical ambivalence in its relationship with Israel will not continue. Perhaps most interesting in this regard is a comment by the British writer and journalist, Robin Shepherd, that given the new government’s likely pre-occupation with domestic issues and global economic considerations, matters regarding the Middle East will likely be left in the hands of the Foreign Office which has a long history of Arabist tendencies.

After a very close relationship with Tony Blair and the New Labour Party, and a good but more standoffish one with Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, it remains to be seen whether Jewish leaders will seek to boost its influence among the Tories and whether the new government will be more sensitive to Jewish needs and demands.

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