Majority government may make Cameron’s constitutional challenges tougher
Denis Staunton: Difficulties of a disorderly federalisation of the UK may demand innovative thinking in Dublin
‘British Prime Minister David Cameron struck a conciliatory note on Scotland, where his Conservatives won just one seat on Thursday, promising to create “the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world with important powers over taxation”. Photograph: . EPA/ANDY RAIN
David Cameron’s victory statement outside No 10 Downing Street yesterday was a model of grace and magnanimity, generous in its praise and compassion for vanquished rivals Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. The prime minister also struck a conciliatory note on Scotland, where his Conservatives won just one seat on Thursday, promising to create “the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world with important powers over taxation”. Among the paradoxes of this extraordinary election, however, is the fact that the most conventional of outcomes – a single-party majority government – may make an orderly resolution of the United Kingdom’s constitutional conundrums more rather than less difficult.
Mr Cameron’s government must deal with two separate but related constitutional issues – the relationship between the UK’s constituent parts and the country’s relationship with the European Union. The prime minister yesterday restated his pledge to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership, probably in 2017. And he promised to implement “as fast as I can” further devolution for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“Governing with respect recognising that the different nations of our United Kingdom have their own governments as well as the United Kingdom government. Both are important and indeed with our plans the governments of these nations will become more powerful with wide responsibilities . . . and no constitutional settlement would be complete if it did not offer, also, fairness to England,” he said.
Most political commentators in Britain are confident that Mr Cameron will secure a satisfactory package of reforms from Britain’s EU partners and then persuade his fellow citizens to vote to remain in the EU. After all, they argue, the rest of the EU will be eager to keep Britain inside and most of the British establishment, including big business, will back a Yes vote.
This is to underestimate the complexity of the negotiating process and the potentially negative impact of the negotiations themselves on British perceptions of Europe. The prime minister’s troubles are likely to begin before he sets foot in Brussels, as he seeks to craft a set of demands that are at once realistic and acceptable to his predominantly eurosceptic party. A large section of the Conservative parliamentary party, numbering a few dozen, already favours a British exit, so no reform package will be enough for them. Much of the rest of the party, goaded onwards by parts of the media, will demand that Mr Cameron sets red lines in the negotiations that could be impossible for other EU leaders to accommodate. And those leaders have electoral considerations of their own, with both Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande facing elections in 2017.
The Conservatives’ overall majority may give Mr Cameron less flexibility in Europe because he will be unable to blame any perceived weakness in his negotiating position on the need to accommodate the demands of a Europhile coalition partner.
In the same way, the prime minister’s ability to govern without a coalition deal or a looser pact with other parties could deprive him of the necessary political cover to take an imaginative approach to the complex constitutional issues around Scottish nationalism and devolution throughout the UK.
Indeed, single-party Conservative government in London is a gift to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP), fuelling Scottish doubts about the legitimacy of a UK government with only one representative north of the border.
Meanwhile, English nationalists within the Conservatives will press for non-English MPs to be excluded from as many policy decisions affecting England as possible. The ad hoc nature of Mr Cameron’s devolution plans is likely to promote competition among the regions for constitutional advantage, reinforcing the centrifugal trends as the UK descends into a disorderly process of self-federalisation.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act makes it difficult to dislodge Britain’s new government but Mr Cameron’s slim majority could leave him open to years of torment at the hands of his own backbenchers, reminiscent of the fate of John Major.
For its part, Labour will be under pressure in England and Wales to shift its policies towards the centre but the party will be unable to win back support in Scotland unless it chimes with the more left-wing mood there. The SNP wants a separate vote on EU membership for Scotland if Mr Cameron’s referendum goes ahead (a demand echoed by Sinn Féin for Northern Ireland). And a British decision to leave the EU would almost certainly trigger a second Scottish referendum on independence.
Perhaps the most alarming feature of both the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership and the extension of devolution is that both processes are in danger of careering out of Mr Cameron’s control as the force of competing nationalisms intensifies. The prime minister’s track record in EU diplomacy doesn’t inspire confidence and his handling of internal constitutional issues has lacked the sure touch of some of his predecessors.
The threat to Ireland’s interests from a British withdrawal from the EU is well documented and clearly understood within the Government. The challenge represented by a disorderly federalisation of the UK is more inchoate but may require more innovative thinking in Dublin and a more profound public engagement here.
A diminished, disjointed UK dominated by an increasingly inward-looking England could, to borrow a phrase, become a cold house for Northern Ireland’s unionists. English politicians are already weary of bearing the cost of subsidising Northern Ireland and the Ulster unionist identity could be perceived as even more peripheral in a Britain that does not include Scotland. In such circumstances, fresh thinking would be needed from Dublin about how best to design new constitutional arrangements that would respect the British identity of Northern unionists as well as that of nationalists. Perhaps it’s time to start that thinking now.
Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor