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 But it has been replaced by an even greater uncertainty over the future of the United Kingdom, both internally and externally.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.