The next UK general election on May 7, 2015, is the most unpredictable in living memory. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party looks to be stuck in the opinion polls at around 30%—nowhere near enough to win a majority. It has been damaged by the popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which regularly polls at over 10% and has sucked away votes from the Conservatives on its right-wing.
But the Conservatives’ main challenger, the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, is scarcely doing any better, polling at best a point or two more—again not enough to come close to winning outright. The Labour Party has been hit by a remarkable surge in support for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which, although lost last year’s Scottish independence referendum, now looks set to wipe out the Labour Party’s traditional dominance in Scotland.
So what’s going on? It’s no exaggeration to say that what we are seeing is a crisis of the UK political system. Although independence was rejected by a clear majority of 55% of Scots last year, no one should misread that for Scottish approval of the UK system of government as it stands. Only around a quarter of the Scots support the status quo. A good two-thirds want either greater powers for the Scottish Parliament or independence. Most hold the politics of the Westminster Parliament—whether in Conservative or Labour guise—in low regard.
It is some irony then that many now expect the SNP—which is currently forecast to win over 40 seats in Scotland—to hold the balance of power at Westminster after May 7. And the SNP is positioning itself for just that, with the aim of trading its support for a Labour Party-led government (the Conservatives are beyond the pale for the SNP) to achieve ‘devo-max’, the maximum amount of devolution achievable while remaining part of the UK. This would leave the Scottish Parliament responsible for everything but defence, foreign affairs, currency and monetary policy. Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party has responded with its ideas on additional devolution that go beyond what was agreed in the aftermath of the referendum. The Labour Party now needs to compete in Scotland on nationalist turf.
But the debate is not just about how Scotland should be governed. People in England have also become dissatisfied with the political system as it stands. Like in Scotland, only a quarter or so are happy with the status quo. People in England think Scotland gets too good a deal at the moment and would like to see some kind of equivalent institutional recognition of England in the UK political system. They are also much more concerned about the UK’s membership of the European Union than the Scots are. Opinion polls suggest the English would vote to leave the EU if given the chance, but the Scots would vote to stay.
This is where the UKIP enters the equation. The UKIP—despite the ‘UK’ in its title—is as close to an English nationalist party as makes no difference. Compared with those of other parties in England, its supporters are the most annoyed about Scotland, the most supportive of English political institutions, and—by a clear margin—the most hostile to the EU. They are also most likely to be ex-supporters of the Conservatives.
So it’s no surprise that the Conservatives have offered a referendum on EU membership should they win the election in May. Their promise to introduce ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (with its stark acronym of EVEL), that is special procedures for England-only matters in the Westminster Parliament to the exclusion of Scottish MPs, is likewise a mechanism to shore up the party’s support against the UKIP challenge.
So, constitutional matters—Scottish ‘devo-max’, EVEL, and the debate on EU membership—look set to play a major role in the May election, and the period afterwards is likely to be one of intensive debate about how the UK and its component nations govern themselves.
There is an implication. Constitutional politics are inward-looking. It is no surprise that the UK has for some time been playing at best a background role in major global issues: the crises in Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa, the financial crisis around Greece in the EU. It is no surprise that it has been looking in on itself on issues like immigration rather than grasping opportunities to deepen economic and strategic partnerships with major powers like India.
As the UK contemplates its constitutional navel in the next years the danger is the rest of the world, with all its opportunities and challenges, will simply pass it by.
The author is senior vice-principal and professor of Politics,
University of Edinburgh