An ever more fragile union
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Britain has a Conservative government. David Cameron has confounded the pollsters, and left egg on the faces of the pundits blindsided by their predictions — this columnist among them. The Tory leader has led his party to its first outright victory since Sir John Major pulled off the same trick in 1992. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that the young Mr Cameron served as an aide to the then prime minister.
He should savour the moment. The election also told the story of two nations — a Scotland that handed a spectacular victory to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party alongside an England that cleaved to an increasingly parochial Tory party. The destruction of the centrist Liberal Democrats amplified the sense of polarisation. Ahead lie dangerous times — for Britain and for Mr Cameron’s Conservatives.
Two great questions are set to shape British politics: the fragile future of the four-nation union and the UK’s permanently irascible relationship with the rest of Europe. For Mr Cameron, they promise only trials and tribulations. History may well see the real significance of the election in the collision between resurgent Scottish, and resentful English, nationalism, the point at which the divisive politics of identity upturned the old order.
The SNP’s landslide was widely forecast. The consequences are no less seismic for that. The election reopened the question that should have been settled by the No vote in last year’s independence referendum. Alongside their grip on the devolved government in Edinburgh, the nationalists now hold 56 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. For the first time since the arguments about Irish home rule at the turn of the 20th century, an overtly nationalist party has become the third force in the UK parliament.
The SNP is celebrating Mr Cameron’s return to Downing Street. The election saw Scotland turn left, and England right. Nothing could better fit Ms Sturgeon’s insidious narrative of a progressive Scotland forever shackled by a Tory-led England. Here, Mr Cameron must now live with the consequences of his own campaign. There are many reasons why England voted Tory — not least the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s alternative prospectus for socialism in one country. But Tory strategists were unabashed in stirring the embers of English nationalism in order to neutralise the UK Independence party and stoke fears among the undecided that a Labour government would “sell out” to the Scots.
Once unleashed, such forces are difficult to restrain — witness the resurgence of populist identity politics across much of the European continent. English Tories who decided long ago that Britain must leave the EU hold no great affection for the union with Scotland. They will be encouraged in their narrow nationalism by Ukip’s performance. The party secured only one seat at Westminster but its 13 per cent share of the national vote will continue to pull the Conservatives rightward.
There may be a path through the devolution minefield to a place where Scottish aspirations for home rule are reconciled by English concerns for a fair distribution of power and resources across the UK. It probably lies somewhere between traditional federalism and the hybrid arrangements that have governed the union for the past several centuries. No one should look for neatness or absolute equality.
Mr Cameron, though, will find himself in two sets of negotiations: with a nationalist bloc at Westminster led by the formidable former SNP leader Alex Salmond and with the Tory backbenches demanding that every concession to Edinburgh be matched by a commensurate step towards English self-government. This way lies the break-up of the union.
Settling the relationship with Europe will be no easier. Here, Mr Cameron is the author of his own predicament. And once again he has to satisfy two sets of competing voices. By demanding a new settlement and setting a 2017 deadline for an in-out referendum, the prime minister has offered himself as hostage both to his European partners and to the hardline Eurosceptics in his own party. Germany’s Angela Merkel will tell him that there must be strict limits to British exceptionalism; many in his party will say that in the absence of a fundamental rewriting of the rules of the EU club, Britain should pull out.
Sir John’s victory comes back to mind. Scarcely had he returned to Downing Street when the then prime minister found himself tormented by Tory Euro-sceptics opposed to the Maastricht treaty. He called them “bastards”, even as he felt obliged to accommodate them in his cabinet. The difference now is that there are many more “bastards” and, in the resentful mood of the times, they scent an opening for victory. Mr Cameron will soon enough be mourning the loss of the moderating influence of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
Magnanimous in victory, Mr Cameron swapped the harsh rhetoric of the campaign for a promise to bind the wounds. He struck just the right tone. But some things cannot be unsaid. It is no longer fanciful to imagine Scotland leaving Britain and Britain leaving Europe.
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