Union blues

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union between the parliaments of England and Scotland that created the United Kingdom. But May 3, when Scottish voters elect a new parliament in Edinburgh, could see a profound challenge to one of the world’s oldest multi-national states.

The elections look destined to be dominated by the resurgence of the Scottish National party, whose principal policy is independence, and which is therefore determined to dismantle the Union that preceded Britain’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion.

Since the 1960s, Scotland has been a bastion of support for Britain’s ruling Labour party. But with the government’s popularity eroding after 10 years in power at Westminster, the SNP appears set to scoop up its disaffected Scottish voters. Opinion polls now give the nationalists an average lead of about six percentage points over Labour, although they still claim less than 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate.

With no party likely to win a majority, Thursday’s election will almost certainly be followed by a round of back-room dealmaking. The SNP would have to find coalition partners willing to support its plans to hold a referendum on independence, which could be difficult. The key may be whether Labour and other unionist parties can together get enough votes to form a majority that excludes the SNP.

Jack McConnell, Labour’s first minister, the leader of the Scottish government, insists Labour still has “all to play for”. He says: “This is about the government of Scotland, it’s about the future of our country. People should think very carefully about that choice.”

The Scottish parliament was brought into being in 1999 by “devolution” – the transfer of limited powers from Westminster to Scotland and Wales – one of Tony Blair’s key constitutional achievements as prime minister. It is a legacy he is keen to emphasise during his final days in office, but a victory for the SNP could embarrass him.

Such an outcome would also be a political earthquake in the backyard of the man who is poised to succeed Mr Blair as prime minister – Gordon Brown, Labour’s finance minister, who is himself a Scot.

Establishing a parliament in Scotland and an assembly with more limited powers in Wales was intended not only to give these ancient countries a greater say over domestic affairs but also to forestall nationalists’ demands for independence. While this seemed to work for two four-year terms, the SNP has succeeded in exploiting UK-wide disaffection with Labour, while also tapping into Scottish voters’ impatience with the restricted powers available to the Edinburgh parliament, which was given little control over the economy and none over defence and foreign affairs.

Alex Salmond, the SNP’s combative leader, has attacked Mr Blair remorselessly on issues such as Iraq and the prime minister’s decision two months ago to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system. The timing was perfect for the nationalists: the missiles are carried on submarines based on the River Clyde, allowing Mr Salmond to claim that Scotland was “being used as a dumping ground for weapons of mass destruction.”

Acornerstone of the SNP’s strategy is its argument that Scotland is entitled to 95 per cent of the North Sea’s oil and gas, which the UK Treasury forecasts will be worth £8.1bn in 2007-08. The surge in energy prices has made the party’s economic programme seem more plausible – even if it will be vulnerable to the volatility of the oil price and uncertain production levels.

A Financial Times analysis last week found that the current high level of the oil price would allow Scotland to declare independence from the UK without having to cut public spending, assuming Scotland received the lion’s share of UK North Sea revenues. But it also warned that as oil revenues dwindle, an independent Scotland would have to choose between raising taxes and cutting public spending within a decade.

Mr Salmond, who once worked as an economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland, suggests that an independent Scotland could use its wealth from North Sea oil to join the “arc of prosperity” that surrounds it – small, prosperous countries such as Ireland, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Mr Blair and Mr Brown counter that the SNP’s economic policies “do not add up”, - arguing they would result in Scotland running an annual budget deficit of £12.9bn, equivalent to more than £5,000 for every Scottish household.

Labour’s cause has not been helped by a lacklustre campaign that has alternated uneasily between claiming credit for Scotland’s success under devolution and warning about the economic consequences of separation from the UK. The government started its barrage against the SNP last November when John Reid, UK home secretary at Westminster and himself a Scot, warned that breaking up the Union could leave Scotland vulnerable to terrorist attacks and floods of illegal immigrants. But Mr Reid’s apocalyptic talk of guards on the Scottish border was widely ridiculed.

Responding to criticisms of the negativity of Labour’s campaign, Mr Blair has since sought to emphasise the benefits of the Union: “I’m not saying Scotland can’t do it but the question is: is it sensible to do it? Or aren’t we both better, England and Scotland, working together in the modern world?” Mr McConnell struck a positive campaigning note by promising education would have “first call” on all extra spending, saying Scotland should be the best educated country in the world.

However, for the most part Labour has concentrated on attacking the SNP. The last few days of the campaign will see further onslaughts on the nationalists’ economic policies – such as the proposal to replace the unpopular council tax, which funds local authorities on the basis of house values, with a local income tax.

This assault might peg back the SNP, as it has in previous campaigns. Mr Brown, who has been fighting the SNP at elections for nearly 30 years, predicts their lead will crumble as voters contemplate the prospect of them taking power.

But this time looks to be different. The SNP seems to have succeeded in defusing the issue of immediate independence by promising only to hold a referendum on the issue within the Scottish parliament’s next four-year term. Mr Salmond also acknowledges that the SNP, which has run only a few local councils to date, would have to demonstrate it could govern a devolved administration responsibly before seeking greater powers.

Labour’s nightmare is that once in power, Mr Salmond would instead be tempted to govern solely with independence in mind, trying to increase support for the promised referendum by constantly picking fights with Westminster over populist issues such as Trident missiles and Labour’s plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations, which the SNP opposes.

Mr Blair has acknowledged some voters might wish “to give me a kicking one last time on my way out of the door”. But he warns that a protest vote against him and Labour risks installing an SNP government. “The SNP’s primary aim is to get independence, to put themselves in the driving seat of a train that leaves the station, destination independence.”

Yet Labour’s doom-laden warnings contrast with the general mood in Scotland, which does not feel like a country on the brink of a decisive move towards independence. Most opinion polls suggest that although the SNP is likely to be the largest single party, support for outright independence has remained below 30 per cent. Electoral turnout, which fell below 50 per cent at the last Scottish parliamentary elections, is not forecast to rise much above 60 per cent.

The SNP’s role as the main vehicle for anti-Labour protest votes has been enhanced by the failure of Scottish Conservatives to share in the recovery in Tory fortunes that David Cameron’s leadership has sparked in England and Wales. The Scottish Tories have been consistently polling in fourth place behind the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems – and could even see a reduction in their already modest total of 17 seats in the 129-seat parliament.

But even if the SNP does emerge as the largest party, that will not alone guarantee decisive change. The parliament was set up by Labour under a proportional voting system precisely to ensure that no one party would be likely to win an overall majority, a measure aimed specifically at the SNP. Even if the SNP does as well as the latest polls suggest, it will only obtain about 47 seats – so will need to form a coalition with one or more other parties to obtain a working majority of 65 seats.

The Lib Dems, who joined Labour in coalition for the first two terms of the Scottish parliament, are forecast to be the third-largest party – so could play the role of “kingmakers” in post-election negotiations over who will form a coalition. Nicol Stephen, a former lawyer and corporate financier who is Lib Dem leader and deputy first minister, insists his party would not support holding a referendum on independence, which would make forming a coalition with the SNP difficult.

However, Mr Salmond has been trying to prepare the ground for a compromise, saying he would consider a multi-choice referendum that, in addition to asking about independence, would test the level of support for giving the Scottish parliament greater powers – which the Lib Dems favour. But the SNP leader will insist on putting the independence question in any referendum, which could prove a deal-breaker.

It is possible that Labour and the Lib Dems will form another coalition – though Mr Stephen has said the SNP would have the “moral authority” to govern if it were the largest party.

Some polls suggest the Greens have enjoyed a late surge of support. The Greens would support an SNP administration and could even enter a formal coalition. The Conservatives started the campaign by saying they were not interested in joining a coalition, but might be tempted if that was the only way of keeping the SNP out of office. Mr Salmond has expressed concern that the Unionist parties could “gang up” against the Nationalists, warning: “To suggest there will be a Unionist shut-out is really circumventing the ballot box.”

Political calculations at the UK level could also prove crucial. Menzies Campbell, the Scottish lawyer who leads the Lib Dems in Westminster, has strongly supported Mr Stephens’ opposition to the SNP’s plans for an independence referendum. Some believe Mr Campbell has his eyes on a bigger game: the prospect of joining a coalition government with Labour after the next British general elections, which must be held by 2010.

Lord Robertson, the former Labour defence secretary who went on to become general secretary of Nato, once predicted devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. But the SNP is on the march again, and the consequences of its advance will be felt far beyond Scotland.

An incentive to stir England’s sleepy majority

This week’s elections to the Scottish parliament will tell us just how much the Scots believe in independence from the UK. But a big vote for the Scottish National party would not only reveal the scale of separatist sentiment north of the border. Victory for the SNP would also have a major impact on England – fuelling English nationalism and intensifying demands that the people who form the majority within the UK should also contemplate breaking away from their neighbours.

English nationalism has hitherto been a rather nebulous phenomenon, one with strong cultural roots but little by way of a political dimension. England does not have a national independence party such as the SNP in Scotland or Plaid Cymru in Wales. Nor – beyond a certain amount of flag-waving at World Cup time – is national feeling seriously expressed by the English. When the people of the north-east were asked in a 2004 referendum whether they wanted their own assembly – giving them rights along the lines of those afforded to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments – there was a thumping majority against.

But the more the Scots go on pondering their relationship with the English, the more many in England start to wonder why they should persist with the Union. After all, many English politicians believe the UK has functioned well for 300 years thanks to a certain restraint by the English. The Scots make up just 5m of the UK’s 60m population. But the UK parliament gives the Scottish minority a far more generous financial settlement than it does to the English. Scottish university students pay no tuition fees. The elderly in Scotland get free long-term care. So south of the border the question is increasingly asked: what’s in it for us?

Resentment of this kind is beginning to be voiced within the top ranks of the opposition Conservative party at Westminster. The main focus of Tory concern is on the need for what they describe as “English votes for English MPs”. Back in 1999, the new Scottish and Welsh parliaments were given sovereignty over health and education spending within their respective territories. But the 59 Scottish MPs in the 646-member House of Commons continue to vote on health and education matters that only affect England. Leading Tories such as Lord Baker of Dorking think this no longer makes sense and want a constitutional reform that excludes Scottish MPs from voting on English laws. This is being considered by David Cameron, Conservative leader, as a manifesto commitment.

Needless to say, the ruling Labour party – which has by far the largest number of Scottish MPs at Westminster – is against the idea. Constitutionalists are also worried by the implications of such a move. Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, argues that it could end up bifurcating the Commons. There would be a UK majority – presumably Labour – for foreign affairs, defence, economic policy and social security; and there would be an English majority – presumably Conservative – for health, education and other matters devolved to Scotland. Prof Bogdanor concludes: “The proposal would therefore destroy the principle of collective responsibility, according to which a government must stand or fall as a whole, commanding a majority on all the issues that come before parliament, not just a selection. It is difficult to see how Britain could effectively be governed in such circumstances.”

The Conservatives are unlikely to take the spotlight off this issue, however. Mr Cameron’s Tories have just one Scottish MP and are making no inroads into Scottish politics. Indeed, they risk coming fourth in next week’s Scottish parliament elections, behind the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems. It is therefore much more attractive for Mr Cameron to seek to undermine Scotland’s role within the Commons.

It suits Mr Cameron, too, to throw a spotlight on an issue that is uncomfortable for Gordon Brown, set to be Britain’s next prime minister. If the “English votes for English MPs” idea were implemented, Scottish MPs would end up with second-class status in the Commons. That would raise questions about whether an MP with a Scottish seat such as Mr Brown could legitimately be prime minister.

This, in short, is the terrain on which the political tension between the Scots and English will be played out over the next few years. An SNP-led administration in Scotland is unlikely to be strong enough to pose a serious challenge to the Union in policy terms. But at Westminster, the Conservatives are desperately seeking policies and initiatives that will allow them to outmanoeuvre Britain’s Scottish prime minister. If Mr Brown gains the upper hand over Mr Cameron in the coming year, the Tory leader may feel he has no option but to reconfigure the playing field on which British politics is fought.

Sources for charts: UK polling report, Thomson Datastream

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