The Anglo-Scottish Union Was Saved: Years of Instability Beckon

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scottish ref


Garvan Walshe
(SPS MW Fellow 2014-2015)


David Cameron is a master political escapologist. He wasn’t supposed to win his party’s leadership election, but produced an extraordinary speech to defeat his more established rivals for the job. The Tory-friendly spectator depicted him on its cover as an ancien regime aristocrat seconds away from the guillotine under the caption “Now get out of this one, Dave.”  When he failed to win a majority in the 2010 election, he quickly outflanked Labour’s offer to the Liberal Democrats, and secured himself vive years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. When it appeared, in the week before the Scottish Referendum that he might well be its last Prime Minister, he gambled again. This time, side by side with the other English party leaders, he promised to guarantee Scotland’s generous funding settlement, known as the Barnett Formula. (Each Scot receives over £2,000 — €2,500 — more public spending per person each year than each English person).

Each of David Cameron’s escapes merely lands him in a more formidable mess, like a computer game character doomed to fight an infinite series of ever more powerful enemies. This one creates two problems: one, the English had long assumed that the Barnett Formula would be scrapped, with Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, on hand to exploit any resentment this generates.  Worse, however, is the effect of this promise on Britain’s parliamentary stability.

Unlike Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, the Scottish Nationalists have avoided much engagement in Westminster. Though they presented it as a self-denying ordinance, this was a practical recognition that their few seats there could not achieve much when Labour or the Conservatives commanded large parliamentary majorities.  That era is over. Neither of the main parties is likely to win a majority for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Labour’s 2011 collapse in Scotland means the SNP could win as many as 25 seats next may, which would put them not far behind the Liberal Democrats, who will probably get around 35. Campaigning for  Westminster representation to keep “the English parties” honest becomes a viable strategy.

It is quite likely that even with Liberal Democrat Support, neither Tories nor Labour will be able to command a secure majority in the House of Commons. Throw in a few UKIP MPs for added disruption.

As with much politics, it comes down to expectations management. Cameron promised the Scots that their funding settlement would continue, just as he has promised his own Eurosceptics a “renegotiation” that will either be far too little to satisfy them or far too much for other EU Member States to accept.

The price of that last-minute panic may be an ungovernable country.