By Mark Tokola
The notion that Korea might be affected by the outcome of the May 7 UK General Election might seem far-fetched. In truth, it would be an exaggeration to say that the outcome is of major significance to South Korea. However, because it is of some importance, that makes it worthy of some attention. Thinking through the international effects of the British election is also a reminder that Korea has global interests, and therefore events anywhere in the world can make a difference to Korea’s peace and prosperity.
The British election outcome was hugely surprising and may mark a turning point in British politics. Contrary to every opinion poll and virtually every expert commentator’s prediction, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party won an outright majority of the Parliamentary seats. The Conservatives’ coalition partner party, the Liberal Democrats, were almost wiped out and now are down to a single digit share of the 650 seats. Many of the major figures of British politics from the Labour and Liberal Democratic Party lost their seats in Parliament, including the individuals who most likely would have been the Chancellor (equivalent to Treasury Secretary but also the second most important figure in government) and Foreign Ministers if Ed Miliband’s Labour Party had won. In the aftermath of the election, three of the party leaders have resigned their positions, Ed Miliband (Labour), Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat), and Nigel Farage (U.K. Independence Party).
The most startling result of the British elections was that the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is dedicated to making Scotland an independent country, captured 56 of the 59 Parliamentary seats that represent Scottish constituencies in the Westminster Parliament. Before the election, the SNP had held 6 of the 59 seats. This shift is unprecedented in the long history of British politics. As an example of the SNP’s triumph, one of the leaders of the Labour Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, lost his seat in Glasgow to 20-year-old University of Glasgow student, Mhairi Black of the SNP, who will become the youngest Member of Parliament since 1667. The leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, has become one of the most important figures in British politics.
Why does this matter to Korea? For two-and-a-half reasons. It means that: (1) the UK is more likely to remain in the European Union; (2) the UK probably will take a more active role in security and defense policy than if the election had been won by a Labour-led coalition government; and (3) advanced, democratic countries are driven by similar political and social forces. The issues that influenced British voters in this election could influence Korean voters in future elections.
The European Union is one of Korea’s most important trading partners and the EU’s influence on global politics is in Korea’s interest. The UK is an important voice within the EU that pushes the EU in the direction of liberal trading policies, defense of human rights, promotion of overseas development policies, and an outward-looking foreign policy that ensures that the EU has an active policy in all parts of the world. None of these EU policies would change in a radical way if the UK were to leave the EU, but without the UK, Europeans agree that the EU would be more focused on its immediate neighborhood and would be more prone to protectionist economic interests. The U.S. government has been explicit that it supports the UK remaining within the EU for these reasons. The U.S. supports “a strong UK in a strong EU.” A stronger EU similarly is in Korea’s interest.
Superficially, the Conservative victory in the May 7 elections might seem more likely to lead to a British exit from the EU because Conservatives generally are more hostile to continued British membership in the EU than are Labour members. However, David Cameron has made clear that he supports continued UK membership in the EU if it undertakes necessary reforms. Labour will remain pro-EU in opposition, but the Conservatives might have turned to an anti-EU leader to replace David Cameron had they lost. So, now both major parties will try to keep the UK in the EU, rather than a Labour government having to fight, and perhaps lose, to a Euro-skeptic led Conservative Party. Finally, David Cameron emerges from the election a stronger party leader, and therefore less likely to have to make concessions to the Euro-skeptics within his own party who would prefer that the UK leave the EU.
On defense and security, the UK is a member of the United Nations Military Command (UNMC) in Korea, obligated by treaty to preserving the armistice. The UK is not a major contributor of military forces, of course, but as a member of the UNMC is one of the most important of the allies within the UNMC, along with Australia. The UK provided one of the experts who investigated the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette, the Cheonan. The UK has a resident ambassador in Pyongyang. In terms of global politics, it is important that North Korea and China are dealing not only with a U.S.-ROK alliance but with a multinational organization officially supported by the United Nations.
When the Labour Party was in power in the UK under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the UK remained as committed to global security and defense as it was under Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. A Labour victory in the May 7th election would not have led to any seismic changes in the UK’s security and defense posture. However, there are voices within the Labour Party and the Liberal-Democrat Party who have argued for deeper spending cuts, and if Ed Miliband had been pushed into a governing coalition with the SNP, the latter’s policy is strongly in favor of cutting the UK’s nuclear deterrent and defense spending. The UK is now more likely to proceed with launching its two new aircraft carriers and maintaining its Trident nuclear deterrence. The British military is currently shrinking, but its residual ability to free U.S. forces for other priorities, such as the Pacific, is helpful to Korea. If an aggressive Russia forces the Europeans to spend more money on defense in coming years, the ability of the liberal democracies to defend their interests everywhere in the world will improve, which is also good for Korea.
There are two footnotes from the British election that will interest Koreans. First, the ability of professional polling agencies to read and interpret public sentiment has become an important feature of all advanced democratic political systems. The fact that British polling experts were caught so flat-footed by the May 7 election outcome will give all polling experts, including in Korea, reason to examine their methodologies to see if they might be similarly mistaken in their analyses. Second, the predominance of the Scottish National Party in Scotland will inevitably lead to a new examination of the UK system of governance. Is it possible that the accommodation of Scottish interests within the UK might provide lessons for the future accommodation of reformed North Korean interests with a unified Korea?
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Number 10’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.