Ireland needs to prepare for looming UK breakup or reform
Paul Gillespie: Scottish issue becomes toxic in British election debate
‘SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been the star performer in television debates, even among English voters.’ Above, Sturgeon speaks at the launch of the Scottish National Party (SNP) election manifesto in Edinburgh on April 20th. Photograph: Lesley Martin/AFP/Getty Images
Scotland is dominating the British election campaign. So much is this so that fears are being expressed about the very future of the United Kingdom as the Scottish issue becomes toxic in competition between the Conservatives and Labour for a Westminster majority.
Conservative leader David Cameron this week attacked the Scottish National Party as “not just an old political party... with a list of interesting demands to make our country stronger, they come with one intention only, to break the UK up and create an independent Scotland”.
He therefore warned voters about the prospect that the SNP would support a minority Labour government – having deprived Labour of a majority by capturing most of its Scottish seats. The former Tory prime minister John Major joined in, saying “the SNP is a real and present danger to our future as a nation”. An alliance between them and Labour would be a “recipe for mayhem”.
Tactically the Conservative intention is to persuade wavering voters from supporting the United Kingdom Independence Party in key English marginal seats – thereby depriving the Tories of a parliamentary majority.
But the unintended effect of this tactic is to demonise Scottish voters, who have flocked to the SNP since last September’s referendum on independence was rejected by 55 to 45 per cent. Its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has been the star performer in TV debates, even among English voters.
Labour leader Ed Miliband accused Cameron of “playing fast and loose with the union”. Michael Forsyth, a former Conservative Scottish secretary, warned that his approach was undermining the “better together” message used to defeat independence. Kenneth Armstrong, professor of European law at Cambridge university, linked the future of the UK with the UK’s future in the European Union.
Armstrong argues that a Conservative-led government will proceed to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU. If an English majority decides to withdraw that would trigger another Scottish independence referendum – even if London did not agree. He concludes that a vote for Labour would take that scenario of constitutional crisis off the table, at least for the next parliament.
Miliband’s determination not to concede an EU referendum links the two union questions, even though the EU one has hardly featured at all in the campaigning. It suits both parties to keep it off the agenda, but it keeps bouncing back in.
Alliance with Labour
Using an appeal to English nationalism to “other” the Scots’ own nationalism raises the question of how the UK as a whole can hang together. Major’s use of the term nation to describe the UK conflates English and British nationalism, an old confusion now returning to haunt the weakening UK. The political geography of party competition reinforces the dynamic of separatism involved, in that the Conservatives have only one seat in Scotland, whereas Labour faces wipeout there.
Observers of the Conservative party stress its increasing identification with English nationalism, confronted with the Scottish and European questions. David Cameron’s political intelligence is more tactical than strategic on both counts, prioritising party unity over national interests – or confusing the two as he faces pressure from Ukip.
The unintended consequences of these choices will accelerate political and constitutional change in our neighbouring island. A major issue arising is whether its existing political and governing class based in Westminster is aware of, or ready for, the radical reforms required to restore the UK’s collective affinities in the next five years.
Ireland needs to prepare itself for the surprising spillover effects of this choice between UK breakup or reform.