David Cameron has frequently emphasised that he wants to be a prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom and not just England. The outgoing government‘s devolution experiment has complicated what once would have seemed a self-evident aspiration.
Labour’s time in office saw haphazard distribution of power to assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales, and to the Parliament in Scotland. The dynamics of government in the UK have changed utterly since 1997. Resurgent separatism and rampant regionalism require Cameron to perform a perilous balancing act.
While the Conservatives’ power base lies in England, the Tories failed to recover electoral ground in Scotland. Their challenge to Labour’s ascendancy in Wales didn’t materialise either and in Northern Ireland, of course, the party’s link-up with the UUP won no seats.
Competing centres of power and the party political geography of the UK will require Cameron and his coalition to govern with extraordinary sensitivity over the next five years. The Conservatives and Lib Dems must avoid creating undue resentment in the devolved regions, particularly as cuts begin to bite.
At the same time, the new government will be mindful of a mounting sense in England that it is disadvantaged by devolution in the other UK nations. If the nascent campaign for an English Parliament were to gather momentum, it could yet prove a greater threat to the Union than other nationalisms.
Cameron has promised to handle the devolved institutions with a ‘respect agenda’. He is keen to avoid conflict, but he also wants communication between regional administrations and central government. Whether this works in practice, when the Conservatives and Liberals attempt to deal with hostile parties, whose interests are advanced by alleging government interference, remains to be seen.
In Scotland, the SNP executive already thrives upon a perceived power struggle between London and Edinburgh. Wales’ Labour / Plaid Cymru coalition is defined by its hostility towards the Tories. And in Northern Ireland a fractious relationship between Stormont and Westminster would delight Sinn Féin.
Even the dominant unionist party in our Executive, the DUP, increasingly views itself as a bulwark against any perceived threat to the block grant.
The Prime Minister spent the last week or so touring the UK. He is clearly acutely aware of the dangers the Union faces and determined that his government should avoid exacerbating them. A potentially tricky visit to Edinburgh resulted in a meeting with SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond, which both sides described as ’constructive’.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, neatly sidestepped a row over block grants, by offering the chance for devolved administrations to defer any cuts until next year. A solution which demonstrates willingness to show a little leeway, as long as the three Executives are prepared to shoulder some responsibility.
It is very early days of course, and Cameron will need to serve his term with the health of the Union always in mind, if he is to maintain an entente cordiale between London and the UK’s devolved nations.