England and the future of the union

UK general election

 

The North’s general election campaign has remained largely aloof from the debates in the contest in the rest of the UK. But this week the DUP’s leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, fired a blistering broadside at the Tories that suggested the party’s presumed support for continued Tory rule might not be automatic, and gave unexpected comfort to the Scottish nationalists.

Desperate to bolster his English vote, Cameron’s central strategy has been to play up fears that Scottish MPs will end up determining the shape of the next government. The PM and Home Secretary Teresa May have gone as far as suggesting, to quote the latter, that Labour dependence on the SNP would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”. That hence, by implication, SNP MPs are somehow less entitled to a say on the shape of the UK which the Tories fought so hard to defend in last year’s referendum?

And, mutatis mutandis, presumably the same could be said of the North’s MPs – hence Dodds’ counterblast which exposed the contradiction at the heart of Cameron’s defence of the union, an unexpressed gulf between English nationalism and unionism. Decidely not one and the same.

He was particularly aggrieved at Cameron’s manifesto pledge that English MPs will get a veto on English-only legislation. “Take the ‘right’ of SNP MPs to vote in the Commons,” Dodds says, “or the supposed lack of legitimacy that stems from it. No one who purports to be a unionist can question it. They have the right. That’s why we fought and won the referendum: to enshrine the rights of Scots to go on sending representatives, fully equal to every other ...”

“There are constitutional inequities in the union born out of devolution,” Financial Times political analyst Janan Ganesh has observed. And so be it – that is the price of maintaining a union, an inevitably imperfect balancing of rights that reflects differing degrees of devolution. The Tory response, Dodds fears, by encouraging English nationalism, will simply exacerbate and inflame the national tensions inside the union and tip it closer to break-up. He could have a point.

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