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British political cycle ends with no vista

PARIS (Reuters) - Britain’s inconclusive general election brings to an end a long political cycle in which better schools and hospitals had top priority for voters.

But unlike the other major sea changes in post-war British politics -- 1945, 1979 and 1997 -- there is no new big idea.

“This was a profoundly unhistoric election,” said historian David Starkey. “There was no real choice.”

What lies ahead is austerity without a vista, but crucial choices about where to cut public spending and raise taxes may be delayed or obscured by a long wrangle over electoral reform.

After World War Two, Britain threw itself energetically into building a modern welfare state based on a mixed economy with a big public sector.

In the cruel words of then U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Britain lost an empire but had not yet found a role. It sought to preserve international influence chiefly as junior partner to the United States and, belatedly and reluctantly, as a member of the European Community.

In the late 1970s, an electorate disenchanted with endless strikes, high taxes and economic muddle turned its back on social democracy and voted for personal enrichment.

That launched Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s radical shake-up of the economy. She privatized most state firms, broke the grip of the trade unions, sold off public housing, deregulated markets and cut taxes.

Her foreign policy mixed defiant nationalism, recapturing the remote Falkland (Malvinas) Islands from Argentina and fighting for British financial interests in Europe, with close partnership with the United States in the Cold War.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the wheel turned again and Britons exasperated by the backward state of their schools, hospitals and trains chose to spend more of their new national wealth on education, health and transport.

That swept Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to power with a mandate to modernize Britain’s creaking public services without reversing the Thatcherite economic disposition.

It was the age of “cool Britannia,” when London became a magnetic multicultural metropolis and City financial sector bonuses fueled a seemingly endless property boom.

His foreign policy was boldly interventionist in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. But despite his declared intention, Blair failed to overcome Britain’s semi-detachment from the European Union, and expended his political capital instead on an unpopular war in Iraq.

The global financial crash of 2008 brought that era to a spectacular end, felling some of Britain’s swaggering banks and leaving others clinging to a life-raft of state aid.

The bank rescues and the ensuing recession -- the deepest since the 1930s Great Depression -- caused an explosion in the public debt and budget deficit. That economic meltdown and a sordid scandal over parliamentarians’ expenses, set the backdrop for Thursday’s general election.

This time disenchanted voters no longer had a choice between private wealth and public services but only between pain now or pain later.

The main campaign issues were how deeply and how soon public spending must be cut, and by how much taxes will have to rise to pay the bill for a decade-long, credit-fueled binge -- and whom Britons least distrust to implement this great retrenchment.

None of the three main parties spelled out the full extent of the coming public spending cuts for fear of driving voters to despair or abstention, or into the arms of fringe parties.

Instead, the election became a personality contest between Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was finance minister for a decade before succeeding Blair in 2007, Conservative opposition leader David Cameron, an upper-class public relations executive in search of a common touch, and the fresh-faced new kid on the block, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

The gravel-voiced, brooding Brown came off worse in three television debates which catapulted Clegg to stardom without propelling his party to an electoral breakthrough, and tested the substance behind Cameron’s slick presentation of a more modern, caring Conservative party.

Most voters were tired of a worn-out Labour government after 13 years and of its uncharismatic leader, but in two minds until the last minute as to how best to replace him.

As a result, they may well end up voting again within a year or so, whoever forms the next government.

Since Britain has no tradition of coalition government, a hung parliament -- the nightmare of financial markets -- could well beget a minority Conservative administration dependent on regional or nationalist parties for support to pass legislation.

That would make it harder to generate the political support required for bold measures such as the sweeping public sector pay cuts or welfare reforms being implemented by other highly indebted nations such as Greece and Portugal.

Instead, Britain may plunge into a debate about changing a first-past-the-post electoral system which has mostly produced stable governments but grossly underrepresents third parties without a strong regional base, such as the Liberal Democrats.

Whether either of the two long dominant parties is really willing to give up their duopoly on power remains to be seen.

editing by Janet McBride

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