Britain's stunning election result

(CNN)CNN Opinion asked a range of contributors to give their take on Britain's election, what it means and what we can expect moving forward. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely their own.

Christiane Amanpour: Continuity wins

First surprise of Britain's election on Thursday -- everyone was WRONG. So it's time to really dissect opinion polls -- any kind of polling, really, and the media herd mentality. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron won, securing an overall majority. No one even came close to predicting that.
So, was it the 40% undecided that caused the tsunami?
    Continuity wins -- change loses. It was a victory for traditional party politics that has dominated the United Kingdom for centuries. All the talk of a whole new coalition holding balance came to nothing, and three party leaders have resigned. Labour's Ed Miliband, stepped down. So did the far right U.K. Independence Party's Nigel Farage, who didn't even win the seat he was contesting. And in a sad day for coalition politics, there was Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg who, while holding onto his own seat, saw his party practically wiped out, prompting his resignation after spending a decade on the frontlines of often brutal British politics.
    Christiane Amanpour
    For one brief, shining moment it was noted that at midnight local time every new MP officially declared was a woman -- that didn't last long. But it is indeed true that now one in three MPs are female.
    David Cameron has promised to continue to try to fully restore Britain's economy, but what about Britain's role in the world? Whether it was Miliband or Cameron in 10 Downing Street, the concern in the United States and amongst allies was that Britain would continue retreating from the world -- the controversy over its shrinking defense budget is likely to continue and experts say Britain will have to have a serious discussion after this election if it wants to continue as a world power.
    Many have made a big deal of that other tsunami -- the sweep by the Scottish National Party and its newfound test in Westminster. But what will it do with the punch it can pack? It looks like the notion that the United Kingdom might be broken up has been averted, but Cameron's win poses the question of whether Britain will remain in the EU? Cameron's win -- and the In/Out referendum he has promised -- certainly keeps this unsettling question alive.

    Timothy Stanley: I learned a lot about my country

    I have learned a lot about my country during this general election. For one, we don't tend to tell pollsters what we're really thinking about things: the polls predicted a very tight race but it appears to have broken in favor of the Conservative Party. For another, we're incredibly divided. And whereas we were traditionally divided by class, we're now more divided by region.
    The right-wing Conservatives have spent the last five years leading a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a slightly more centrist party. In that time they've exacted significant cuts to spending and reformed welfare programs. The left-wing Labour Party warned that it would result in a recession -- but it didn't. On the contrary, Britain now has the highest rate of employment since records began.
    But people aren't feeling the boom and Labour sensed that it could win by swinging to the left and offering more spending. So the scene was set for a classic Left vs. Right, class warfare campaign. But something changed all of that.
    Timothy Stanley
    Last year, the Scots held a referendum on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom and go it alone. They voted no -- yet, curiously, the Scottish Nationalist Party actually saw its support rise in the wake of that verdict rather than fall. The SNP told the Scottish people that they could have something better than independence: they could stay in the Union but send Nationalist MPs to London to vote in their regional interest. The idea caught fire and it drained Labour's support in its traditional Scottish, working-class heartlands. Meanwhile, it probably increased support for the Conservatives in England because English voters were warned of the possibility of a Labour/SNP coalition that would tax them more to pay for Scottish services.
    The whole situation sounds very complicated, but it can be reduced to this: an election that should've been about the economy became an election about the constitution.
    That the early polls and punditry didn't necessarily reflect this I put down to the number of voters who left it until the last minute to decide what to do. I traveled around the Midlands region of England, visiting swing voters in the suburbs and found that people were genuinely unsure of how they might vote. Or else unwilling to say. The leaderships of both Conservatives and Labour are very unpopular and don't generate passion. They look alike, sound alike and come from similar social backgrounds. There's a feeling that they represent an old-fashioned kind of politics that's out of touch with people's lives.
    By contrast, the real energy in this campaign was generated by a new generation of women campaigners. One was Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP. She's a militant socialist and a passionate nationalist and, frankly, the forces that she represents frighten me. But she is undoubtedly charismatic and stole the show.
    As for the future, I suspect that Britain is starting to splinter off into two nations -- or even several contrasting political identities. The break-up is sad, but even more tragic is the anger and bitterness involved. Old hatreds are being revived even as most British yearn for leadership that can heal their country.
    Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph.

    Jeremy Shapiro: Britain losing influence

    As the White House has been at pains to emphasize, the U.S. government does not take sides in foreign elections. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't care.
    Under Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain has been consciously reducing its influence in global affairs -- slashing defense spending, cutting back on its diplomatic corps and basically standing aside as the United States launched an air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. For his second act, Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union that will preoccupy political Britain for the next two years and risk seriously weakening the EU.
    Jeremy Shapiro
    How is the White House likely to respond to all this? Well, we can expect U.S. officials to declare that they can work with whoever wins, although the exit polls and early results suggest that Cameron's Conservative Party is going to be returned to power. And the two countries will certainly continue to work effectively on many important issues. Indeed, the truth is that a Labour government undoubtedly would have presented its own difficulties for the United States.
    But U.S. officials also understand that a second Cameron government means a continued loss of U.K. influence in the world and an even rockier ride for the already shaky European Union. This suggests that, regardless of the happy faces, the continued loss of strength in the U.K. and EU implied by the conservative victory will be viewed as far from good news for the United States.
    Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

    Sherry Davey: It's Britain, not 'Survivor'

    "Isn't there an election coming up this week in the U.K.?" a woman from New Jersey asked me at one of my shows at the weekend. (My British accent attracts these kinds of questions).
    First off, I was completely gobsmacked (stunned) that she said U.K. and not England. Brilliant! Alas, seconds later, my initial excitement was somewhat deflated when she followed that question up with another: "Are they voting on the name of the new princess?"
    Yes, there has been an election in Britain, a place I once called home. Yes, they actually have a real system of democracy over there. In fact, it's very similar to our system -- it's mostly composed of people who lack even the merest shred of integrity and humanity -- just like here. And no, the Queen does not cast the deciding vote. (It's Britain, not "Survivor").
    Sherry Davey
    On Thursday, British people were able to vote online for the first time! Just think -- they could see what their Facebook friends are eating and decide the future of their country at the same time! And just like in the U.S., temporary polling stations were set up in churches, schools, libraries. Britain is even more creative, though -- they also make use of garages; hair salons; private residences; gyms; amateur boxing clubs; and of course pubs! That's right, you can have a drink and vote! Perfect.
    So, how has David done? Prime Minister David Cameron, that is, not Victoria Beckham's husband. David Cameron is the leader of the Conservatives, also known as the Tories. They are a bit like the Republicans, and they will be really happy with how this election has gone.
    One party that won't be happy about how Thursday's election went is Labour (yes, that's the proper spelling), the center-left party that supports trade unions, equality, the rights of the poor and organic gardens. Despite all this, though, they're often accused of taking bribes and expensive holidays on the taxpayers' dime. Sound familiar? Thought so.
    I'd actually have been glad if one party had gotten a majority, because otherwise we have to put up with a "hung parliament," which sounds rather naughty ... but it's just a mess. And however things end up, it was a win-win for those voters at the pub -- they could either drown their sorrows or celebrate the results, if they stayed there until after the polls closed.
    Very convenient.
    Sherry Davey is a single mom, comedian and writer for Nickmom Television based in New York. She produced, wrote and stars in her own mini series on Nickmom. For more, visit: www.sherrydavey.com

    Shazia Mirza: Britons want justice, fairness

    There is nothing the British public wants more than fairness and justice. That's because the British people are a fair-minded, principled people -- we don't just vote for who we think will benefit us personally, but the party who we believe to be most decent and which will benefit the country as a whole. We're a bit Angelina Jolie like that.
    But we're also disillusioned by politics. Many are disappointed with their day-to-day lives and by not being heard. As a result, this is not a two-horse race like the ones we see in America between Republicans and Democrats. Over here, people are voting for smaller parties, organizations that are getting noticed.
    Shazia Mirza
    And in this election -- the most important in a very long time -- that hasn't necessarily been a good thing.
    Why? Because just as right-wing parties have been making gains around the world -- in France and Australia, for example -- the racist right has been making inroads in Britain, too. And the U.K. Independence Party poses the most serious threat to civilized politics since the National Front launched back in 1967.
    As a result, this election has been more about keeping certain parties out, rather than voting out of enthusiasm for someone. This has been made even worse by the contamination of extremism in the British press -- a dangerous deterioration over the years that has created a sense of disenchantment as misconceptions about issues of immigration and race have spread.
    Will the honorable voters keep turning out? It looks like they did for the "slightly less bad" party. And we can hold the right-wing bigots at bay a little longer.
    Shazia Mirza is an award-winning British Asian Muslim comedian and a columnist for ''The New Statesman." You can find out more at her website: www.shazia-mirza.com.

    Lawrence Freedman: Broad outlines of foreign policy won't change

    The British election was fought with barely any discussion of foreign policy. Events in Ukraine or the possibility of a Greek default gained little notice. The only two campaign issues that related to the outside world -- whether Britain continues with an independent nuclear deterrent and the possibility of a referendum on European membership -- have been decided.
    The Trident program will now go ahead and be past recall in 2020 and there will be a referendum.
    The timing and management of this referendum will be crucial. Prime Minister David Cameron may be tempted to bring it forward while his authority in the party is greatest. This has been a more divisive issue in his ruling Conservative Party than in the country, and he will wish to get it settled once and for all. A referendum is always a gamble, but current projections suggest a comfortable yes vote, especially if backed by Cameron.
    Despite the nationalists' massive wins in Scotland there will not, incidentally, be another referendum on independence, although Edinburgh will get substantially more powers.
    The broad outlines of foreign policy will not change, but Cameron will be aware of concerns from the United States and elsewhere that the British voice has been quiet, even absent, when the crises of the day have been addressed and that insufficient is being spent on defense.
    Against expectations Britain now has a stable government that can look forward to five years in power. The question is whether, after the Scottish referendum and prolonged electoral uncertainty, this will enable the country to lift up its head and look harder at the outside world.
    Sir Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London and the author of 'Strategy: A History'. 

    Will Marshall: Can Cameron hold U.K. together?

    In what must surely rank as the oddest British election in memory, the Conservative Party has won a smashing victory. But so did its nemesis, the Scottish National Party, which ran the table north of Hadrian's Wall. The vote leaves three big questions hanging: Will Scotland leave Britain, will Britain leave Europe, and will the Labour Party learn how to win again?
    Although pre-election polls showed the Conservatives and Labour running neck and neck, the Tories look set to win an outright Parliamentary majority of 331. Labour, annihilated in Scotland, also failed to make inroads in England. Top Labour figures like Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander lost their seats and party leader Ed Miliband announced his resignation.
    Election night was even bleaker for the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the governing coalition. Getting a paltry 8% of the national vote, they went from having 57 MPs to just nine. That makes the upstart SNP Britain's third largest party.
    Even though the incumbent Tories won, the election confirmed a new configuration in British politics shaped by resurgent nationalism and the rise of new parties that are chipping away at the long-dominant Conservative-Labour duopoly. As analysts sift through the election results, some clear conclusions and lessons are emerging:
    Will Marshall
    First, fundamentals matter. Britain's economy is now the strongest in Europe. Unemployment is half the EU average, and London's financial and tech sectors are booming. In the closing days of the campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron warned repeatedly that Labour would reverse the policies -- including fiscal discipline -- he said have produced prosperity. Voters seem swayed by that argument, and the outcome will be seen as a vindication of "austerity."
    Second, holding the U.K. together will be the government's biggest challenge. The election confirmed that last year's referendum on independence did anything but slay the dragon of Scottish nationalism. The SNP is expected to win at least 56 of Scotland's 59 seats in Westminster. Its gains came mainly at Labour's expense, although the Lib Dems lost seats here too. So in the next Parliament the Tories will confront a large chunk of MPs dedicated to disunion with Britain.
    Third, the nativist U.K. Independence Party confirmed it's still a force in British politics, even as its flamboyant leader, Nigel Farage, lost his seat. UKIP garnered 13% of the national vote in England, but only won a single seat thanks to Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system. The anti-immigrant party wants Britain out of the EU, and since many Tories are also anti-Europe, Cameron will have to schedule the referendum on a "Brexit" he has promised. Meanwhile, the pro-Europe parties, Labour and the Lib Dems are diminished. In a further complication, the SNP wants Scotland to stay in Europe even as it splits with Britain.
    Fourth -- and this lesson may apply as much to progressives in the United States as in Britain -- Labour's campaign exposed the limits of class warfare and economic populism. Miliband focused his argument for change entirely on economic inequality. Claiming that Tory economic policies favor Britain's finance and business elites at the expense of the working class, he called for higher taxes on the rich and more rather than less public spending on social welfare. Missing from Miliband's highly redistributive message was an alternative theory for economic growth and competitiveness, or new ideas for modernizing public services. That made it easier for Cameron to cast Labour as a threat to Britain's hard-won fiscal and economic gains.
    In this sense, Miliband's campaign was a throwback to "old Labour" orthodoxy and an implicit repudiation of the New Labor's strategy crafted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with an assist from Ed's older brother and former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband. This strategy -- consciously emulating Bill Clinton's "New Democrat" success in America -- enabled Labour to reach beyond its traditional working-class base and make deep inroads among the aspiring families of "Middle England."
    The result, beginning with Blair's landslide victory in 1997, was a new majority and Labour's longest stretch in government ever. While Miliband can't be held responsible for the debacle in Scotland, his narrative of economic grievance and unfairness failed to move voters in England, where Labour actually lost ground. Even adding the SNP's seats to Labour's total leaves the party far short of a majority.
    And the brutal rejection Labour suffered yesterday will likely leave many of its supporters wondering whether the party picked the right Miliband for leader.
    Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

    Gary Schmitt: Special relationship not what it was

    What remains of the special relationship between London and Washington lies buried within the bowels of their respective intelligence and defense bureaucracies -- and even there the relationship grows thinner with the decline in British military capabilities and America's efforts to pivot defense resources to Asia.
    The occupant of 10 Downing Street is no longer the first person a U.S. president thinks of calling when looking for support internationally. And British prime ministers since Tony Blair have gone out of their way not to be seen as the Oval Office's "poodle."
    Gary Schmitt
    This isn't likely to change following the British election, which took place Thursday.
    Of course, international events might change a future government's focus, as they sometimes do. But British foreign relations were an afterthought until the campaign's last days, with both Prime Minister David Cameron and main opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband paying principal attention to issues in governance and domestic affairs.
    The truth is that London's strategic vision has narrowed in recent years, more befitting its contemporary interests and capabilities and less the shadow of its empire past. This doesn't mean the U.K.-U.S. alliance is dead -- too much history for that to happen -- but neither is it likely to be what it once was anytime soon.
    Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

    Michael Geary: A crucial election for foreign policy

    Britain has voted in a general election that polls consistently suggested was one of the closest fought campaigns in years. This election might also prove to be one of the most crucial since the 1970s for determining the course of the country's foreign policy.
    Back in 1974, Labour leader Harold Wilson promised that, if elected to government, he would renegotiate Britain's membership of the European Union and hold a referendum. He won that election, renegotiated and his referendum passed, keeping the British-European marriage intact. But four decades later, the same promise is back on the political agenda -- and this time, divorce seems a strong possibility.
    British Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to hold an "in/out" vote on membership in late 2017 after he renegotiates London's relationship with Brussels. And while he is in favor of Britain staying in the EU, many on the right of his own party want to leave. The Eurosceptic U.K. Independence Party has benefited considerably from the growing anti-Brussels sentiment among the electorate, something that seemed set to further erode support for the Conservative Party.
    Michael Geary
    Main opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband had for his part said he would only hold a referendum if more powers were transferred from Westminster to the EU. (Both the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are broadly pro-EU).
    But that won't matter now, and the Conservatives may not even have to look for coalition partners. As a result, many in Europe will be left wishing that somehow a Labour-led government had emerged triumphant in hopes of avoiding a renegotiation of key treaties.
    For them, the coming days may feel very long indeed.
    Michael J. Geary is Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and assistant professor of European Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.