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Brittle Britain

LONDON – Which European country faces the greatest risk of political instability and financial turmoil in the year ahead? With less than a week to go before the British general election on May 7, the answer is both obvious and surprising. Once a haven of political and economic stability amid the turmoil of the euro crisis, the United Kingdom is about to become the European Union’s most politically unpredictable member.

Indeed, continuity is the one election outcome that can almost certainly be excluded. Unless opinion polls are inaccurate to a degree unprecedented in British history, the two parties comprising the government coalition, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, have almost no chance of winning a combined parliamentary majority.

One possibility – with a probability slightly above 50% according to the polls – is that Britain, the birthplace of Thatcherism and the EU’s standard-bearer of neoliberal economics, will soon have a Labour-led government committed to the biggest tax-raising program since the 1970s. Moreover, because of the peculiarities of the British electoral system and the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, a Labour government’s survival would depend on the support of parties with even more radical economic agendas and dedicated to dismantling the UK.

Another scenario – almost as probable as a Labour-led coalition – is a weak and unstable Conservative government. To judge by the opinion polls, Cameron’s best hope is to win more parliamentary seats than Labour and try to form a minority government, which could survive as long as the other parties failed to unite against it. This might be possible, because the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalist Party may see benefits in allowing a weak Conservative government to remain in power, at least for a while.