It’s over four years since I last blogged regularly about constitutional issues in the United Kingdom. During that time independence for Scotland was rejected at a referendum and we've had a Prime Minister who emphasised repeatedly his unionist credentials. So is the Union in a healthier state in 2015 than it was in 2011?
If you look at its prospects for the very short-term, the answer is probably ‘yes’.
The ‘Better Together’ coalition managed to fend off a muscular movement for independence, in the Scottish referendum. That campaign was polarising, ill-tempered and, at times, looked nail-bitingly close, but the Union between Scotland and England survived. Whether it emerged from the fight unscathed, is another matter.
In the afterglow of victory David Cameron told the UK that there would be “no disputes, no re-runs, we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people”. Even the ever-pugnacious Alex Salmond, winded by defeat, appeared to reaffirm his pre-poll pledge of no more independence referenda “for a generation”.
Of course, ‘a generation’ is not a fixed period and, in any case, it is relatively brief, measured against the history and politics of a nation state. Judged with reference to this longer time-scale, I believe the Union is weaker now than in 2011.
The differences between England and Scotland, politically, have widened during the past four years, and even since the referendum. Rather than derailing the Scottish National Party (SNP), the unsuccessful independence campaign filled its ranks with new members and gave it enough momentum to destroy Labour in the 2015 General Election. Nationalists now dominate overwhelmingly Scotland’s allocation of seats at the UK Parliament in London and form the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh.
It’s possible to juggle numbers and statistics or philosophise about the unfairness of electoral arithmetic at Westminster elections, to prove that there is still a substantial, pro-Union majority. But the SNP’s current position is remarkable, however it is measured, for the time being it is unchallenged and it allows the party to focus politics in Scotland round the independence debate to an even greater degree.
Fifty six of Scotland’s fifty nine Members of Parliament are there with the purpose of confronting the Westminster government and, ultimately, working toward the United Kingdom's dissolution. That must have a corroding effect on relationships within the Union and the political bonds which hold it together. The SNP has persuaded Scottish voters, successfully, that socio-economic issues are determined by an ongoing struggle between Edinburgh and London. It is against that backdrop that the Labour Party was decimated in the General Election.
Aside from issues round leadership and organisation, Labour struggled to convince electors that it could be trusted to fight for resources and special treatment for Scotland, at Westminster. The referendum cast the party as an ally of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and, while nationalists failed to win their war over independence, they won an important battle to claim centre-left Scottish votes.
This idea of politics as a 'tug of war' has shaped politics south of the border too.
Among voters in England, attitudes to Scotland seem to be more hostile, after a divisive independence debate, followed by a General Election where English nationalist themes were frequently implied. It may have been fair to highlight the possible consequences of certain MPs having undue influence in a hung parliament but, in the unrestrained atmosphere of a Westminster campaign, a legitimate argument could quickly acquire an anti-Scottish, rather than an anti-SNP, colouring.
This atmosphere has continued after the election, with the new Conservative government confirming its commitment to grant ‘English votes for English laws’, in the Queen’s Speech. Under these relatively benign proposals, procedures will be tweaked, with members representing England, or England and Wales, forming a committee scrutinising legislation affecting only those parts of the UK, before it is subject to a full vote in the House of Commons. Opponents are already grumbling about the potential to create ‘two tiers’ of MPs.
The Tories claim their ideas will strengthen the Union, addressing English grievances before they develop into outright nationalism. In the current atmosphere, though, any changes to the constitution will have to be drafted carefully and argued with extreme delicacy, if they are not to deepen divisions within the UK.
David Cameron says the Conservative government intends to introduce more cuts and rebalance the economy dramatically, with lower taxes and lower spending, especially on welfare. Irrespective of whether these plans are right or wrong, there will remain an atmosphere of extreme sensitivity around public spending, over the course of the current parliament.
Against this background, English perceptions that the devolved nations get a great deal out of the Treasury, at their expense, are likely only to flourish, particularly with the Scottish Parliament due to get greater tax and borrowing powers soon. The government’s policies toward Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland will be shaped, almost inevitably, by sentiment in England. There is little appetite there for generosity and concessions toward the seemingly spendthrift Celtic regions.
Once, the greatest threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom was believed to come from Irish nationalists. Yet Northern Ireland has been mentioned in this article only in passing, because the latest farce at Stormont is a side-show, largely irrelevant to the longer term future of the Union. The UK’s fate will be determined overwhelmingly by the complicated knot of relationships between England and Scotland.
Disappointingly, in the aftermath of the independence referendum, little progress has been made on examining why these relationships have been unravelling. Nor has there been a serious discussion about how to encourage people across four nations in the UK to feel more attached to their common British identity. It’s these big conversations which are more likely to suggest how to repair damage caused by devolution and increasing nationalism, rather than tinkering with aspects of the constitution.
There are still compelling practical reasons for a majority of people in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to choose to remain within the United Kingdom. Yet the more emotional arguments for Union seem to be losing their power, at least in Scotland, where a younger generation is apparently enthused by the prospect of independence.
This might look like a bleak prognosis from a pro-Union writer and I am certainly not suggesting, like so many separatists, that break-up is inevitable. However the ‘no’ vote at the Scottish independence referendum did not signal that the United Kingdom is out of danger.
The campaign and its aftermath damaged the Union profoundly. If there isn’t a proper and concerted attempt to repair that damage, the UK may well encounter less surmountable challenges in the future.