The Conservatives might have won decisively, but the future of the Union is still uncertainby Peter Riddell / May 8, 2015 / Leave a comment
The expected post-election uncertainty over the formation of the next government has not materialised. But it has been replaced by an even greater uncertainty over the future of the United Kingdom, both internally and externally. British politics for much, if not all, of the next five years looks likely to be dominated by constitutional issues—obviously, and most immediately by the position of Scotland; but also by decentralisation within England; membership of the European Union; and a British bill of rights.
Until now, these issues have tended to be viewed separately by leading politicians, but they are inter-connected. There are not really separate Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, English or European questions. Rather, there is an overriding UK question: about how we are governed and the relations between the component nations, and within European institutions.
The most pressing component is clearly Scotland following the SNP’s rout of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, comparable to the triumph of Sinn Fein in the 1918 general election in what is now the Irish Republic. Even though the 56 SNP MPs do not have the leverage in the House of Commons they would have had if there had been a hung parliament, they are a force which cannot be ignored. So in contrast to the anti-SNP fear stories of the campaign, David Cameron has to develop an approach which keeps Scotland in the Union. As he returned to Downing Street, he talked about a policy of respect and pledged to take forward as soon as possible the existing draft bill on devolution of further tax powers which emerged from the post-referendum Smith Commission. The SNP government is pressing for more, for full fiscal autonomy—even though that might be onerous in practice for Scottish taxpayers. A key early test will be whether the draft bill is strengthened. Mr Cameron has also promised to press ahead with the proposals for further Welsh devolution contained in the St David’s Day agreement and further specifically Northern Irish initiatives.
All this is against the background of elections to the Scottish Parliament in a year’s time when the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be seeking to retain the SNP’s overall majority. While she has been careful to say that Thursday’s victory is not itself a reason for re-opening the referendum question, relations between London and Edinburgh over the next 12 months could determine whether, or rather how, a commitment to a further referendum on independence is made in May 2016.
Read more on the election result:
Why Europe isn’t happy about our election result
The SNP has a hard road ahead
What Labour’s next leader needs to do
It is impossible to separate the future of Scotland from the proposed referendum on EU membership, to be held by the end of 2017, if not before. Mr Cameron reaffirmed his intention to go ahead with the negotiations with the rest of the EU and there is now no parliamentary obstacle to the necessary legislation. His political authority has been considerably strengthened by his unexpected outright victory, so there will be no talk of leadership challenges. But this authority is dependent on honouring the referendum pledge and will be severely tested by whichever position he then takes, either for staying in or leaving. The success of the UK Independence Party in gaining nearly 4m votes, around an eighth of the total, is a reminder of the scale of the forces of hardline euro-scepticism. But Ukip will probably now seem less of a threat in Conservative eyes since the party only won one seat and failed to prevent the Conservatives from achieving gains in the south-west.
A UK, and therefore primarily English, vote in favour of withdrawal could, however, be the trigger for a second independence referendum in Scotland. The nightmare—at least for those favouring the Union and continued membership of the EU—is that misjudgments over the next two years could lead both to the disintegration of the UK and leaving the EU. So the stakes are high and either of the outcomes is conceivable.
This new Cameron government also has to address the links between Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution and the separate proposals to decentralize some spending powers to city regions in England, starting with Manchester, and what George Osborne describes as creating a “Northern Powerhouse.”
This asymmetrical pattern is unlike the clarity of fully federal system such as the US and Germany but is not unlike Spain or the special arrangements relating to Quebec in Canada. The Conservatives will certainly press ahead with a version of English votes for English laws to ensure that Scottish MPs cannot determine the outcome of legislation for England, or England and Wales. That again could be a trigger for a renewed move towards independence in Scotland.
This is, however, only part of the story. Not only are the approaches different in each case, but there has been little discussion of the inter-connections for the government of the UK. No one in the parties, or in the civil service has been asking the UK question. There is so far no machinery in Whitehall for looking at these questions as a whole.
Moreover, the unevenness of the decentralization of powers to English local authorities means that central government policies will not apply uniformly across even England. This piecemeal approach is unsustainable in the long-term.
Other constitutional issues will also be raised—notably the desire for a British Bill of Rights to replace, or at least modify, the current arrangements over the European Convention and Court of Human Rights. This was stalled during the coalition years because of Liberal Democrat opposition, but will now go ahead despite the reservations of many lawyers and the senior judiciary.
We will not see any attempt at fundamental reform of the composition of the House of Lords, explicitly seen as a very low priority in the Conservative manifesto. Similarly, the debate over electoral reform is likely to get nowhere despite the protests of Ukip and the Greens over the glaring contrasts in the relationship between votes and seats won.
It is tempting to see Thursday’s general election as a return to the familiar pattern of single party majority politics after what can be presented as the aberration of five years of coalition government. That was reflected in the tone of relief expressed by Mr Cameron as he announced the formation of his new government.
But that may be premature. The Conservatives and Labour between them only won just over 67 per cent of the total votes cast, a couple of points higher than their combined share in 2010, but much less than the 75 per cent plus they won until the early 2000s and the 97 per cent of 1951. The contrast is even starker is you look at the combined votes of the two main parties plus the Liberal Democrats, which droppedl from 88 to 71 per cent since the 2010 election. The electoral and party system is still fragmented compared with the past, not just in Scotland but also in England. So while, we have a single party majority government, largely thanks to the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, we have not necessarily returned to majority politics.