Friday, 18 September 2015

Offering more and more autonomy will not fend off nationalists' challenge to the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has warned David Cameron not to ‘disrespect’ the Scottish people’s choice to return 56 SNP MPs at the election last May.

Naturally, Ms. Sturgeon has a selective view of which election results should and should not be respected.  She doesn’t show much regard for the overall outcome of the general election and, just a year after the independence referendum in Scotland, her party is threatening to demand a re-run, so her ‘respect’ doesn’t extend to the 55% of voters who opted to remain within the UK for at least ‘a generation’, either.

The Conservative Party won a narrow majority of seats in the House of Commons in May 2015, but it’s clear that nationalists will offer a rolling challenge to the government’s authority in their nations, throughout this parliament.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP consistently claim that the Tories have ‘no mandate’ to impose welfare reform.  It doesn’t matter that the parties at Stormont were free to craft their own, alternative welfare bill, so long as the budget balanced.  Nor does it matter that the Executive, insofar as it still exists, could yet agree to allocate money from other departments to pay extra benefits to claimants in Northern Ireland.

Nationalists’ unspoken implication is that the British government has no right to do anything at all which can affect Stormont’s finances detrimentally.  And, given, that Stormont’s finances are determined by the Barnett Formula, which allocates money through a calculation based on the budget at Westminster, that’s the same as saying the British government has no authority to cut spending in the UK, so long as Northern Ireland is part of the Union.

This type of logic doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is the privilege of the nationalist, who rejects the right of the United Kingdom to exist in the first place.

Nicola Sturgeon is pulling the same trick.  She claims that people in Scotland are entitled to another referendum, if the Conservatives don’t reverse welfare changes and abolish the Trident nuclear submarine programme.  The second demand is fairly extraordinary, given that the Faslane Royal Navy base on the Clyde, which houses the Trident fleet, supports some 4,000 civilian jobs as well as housing 3,000 service personnel and their family members.  But these ultimatums are a movable feast; the content will change with the political landscape.

Nationalists’ philosophy will remain the same. If the government doesn’t give the views of 59 Scottish (or 18 Northern Irish) MPs the same weight as those of 650 overall MPs, it forfeits its authority over those regions.  It makes a nonsense of the UK as an integral political unit but, for nationalists, that is part of the point.

They are within their rights to worry away at constitutional fault-lines, however flimsy the underlying rationale, and their rhetoric doubtless appeals to the chauvinistic streak in the UK’s respective regions.  While they think they can undermine the fabric of the Union, and at the same time voice a populist case against controversial Westminster policies, then that is exactly what they will do.

Nationalists cannot be expected to be fair or responsible when it comes to respecting the political make-up of the whole Kingdom.  They will keep demanding, and they will keep challenging the authority of the Westminster government, whichever guise it takes.

That’s why awarding the devolved regions with ever greater autonomy will not be enough to fend off nationalist threats to the UK indefinitely.  There is every likelihood that, while the SNP is in the ascendency in Scotland, it will continuing asking the same question until it gets the answer it wants.   There has to be a more serious and concentrated focus from the pro-Union side on how bonds, connecting people across our four nations to a common British identity, can be strengthened.

Who makes up the ‘pro-Union side’, now that the Labour party has a leader who supports a United Ireland and says he’s not a unionist, is getting less clear, but that’s for another day.  

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