The Future of the Union

Published: 9 December 2019

In their blog, Nicola McEwen and Dan Wincott evaluate the impact that Thursday's election may have on the union.

The future shape of the UK is at stake in this general election.  Independence is a critical election issue in Scotland and discussion of a border poll in Northern Ireland is more widespread than ever before. The SNP has made the demand for a new independence referendum the central feature of its election campaign – to an extent not seen in previous general elections. The transfer of competence, via a section 30 order, to empower the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an independence referendum is the non-negotiable price the Labour Party would have to pay to get the SNP’s backing to form a government.  Each of the British parties has responded to this new threat to the Union in distinctive ways, ranging from assertive rejection to partial accommodation of the SNP’s demand.  

All the Britain-wide parties are opposed to Scottish independence, but approach the issue of an independence referendum in contrasting ways. The Conservative manifesto restates its opposition to a referendum. The Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto is especially forthright: it’s the only part of the UK where the core anti-independence message - ‘No to Indyref 2’ is the title page of the manifesto - takes precedence over the mantra of getting Brexit done. In this regard, the Scots Tories are aiming to replicate the formula that saw the party win 13 seats in 2017 and secure its best vote share since 1979. Their command of both the Unionist vote and the Leave vote in Scotland may help the party to fend off a challenge from the SNP in its most marginal seats. Labour’s more ambiguous position on independence and the Union also helps the Conservatives. Although the Labour manifesto rules out transferring power to the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum on Scottish independence ‘in the early years of a Labour government’, when pressed, the Labour leader conceded this meant in its first two years in office. The Liberal Democrats oppose a new independence referendum, and oppose independence, championing instead the party’s commitment to ‘home rule’ for each of the nations as part of a federal UK.

Disentangling Party Competition across the Union

Like its governmental structures, UK political parties are territorially complex.  The major Britain-wide parties, Conservatives and Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party, have little or no direct presence in Northern Ireland, which has a distinct party system of its own.  The SNP and Plaid Cymru are national parties in Scotland and Wales. The traditional Britain-wide parties each take a more-or-less distinctive form in these countries. There are three Green Parties – one for England and Wales and distinct parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Although their Scottish branches publish their own versions, the British party manifestos that gain most attention are, at once, for England, Britain and the UK.  This complexity can easily become confusing.  When politicians at Westminster speak of ‘our country’ or pledge money for ‘our NHS’ do they mean England, Britain or the UK? Large swathes of public policy, including most big ticket public spending, are devolved outside England. Yet it is far from unknown for Westminster politicians to speak as if they could control them directly.

Despite the Party’s advocacy of significant constitutional change, the Brexit Party seems to view the UK as a wholly unitary state. Nothing in its ‘contract’ – or quasi-manifesto – gives any hint of the existence of devolution.  The other GB-wide parties vary sharply in how clearly they discuss devolution – and particularly whether they identify the specifically English character of such major public services as health and education. The Liberal Democrats and Labour manifestos each state explicitly their promises are for England only, in certain key areas.  The Conservative manifesto makes no such statement, although it has separate sections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that – mostly (notwithstanding some confusion) – concentrate on policy areas that are reserved to the Westminster parliament.

Plans for Union and devolution

Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats have a dedicated section of their manifesto for England – often ignored in discussion of devolution. They offer a strengthened ‘England only’ legislative process at Westminster - but without clearly specifying the form it would take.  Their ‘federal’ plans also include provision for ‘home rule’ for each of the nations of the UK, including ‘regionalisation’ in England, as and when demand arises. They envisage a Cornish Assembly and a Yorkshire Parliament, but without any detail as to what this would entail. They address policy imbalance between the UK and devolved governments, giving a stronger role for the devolved governments in UK-wide policy frameworks, and aim to tie devolved actors into the governance of UK-wide institutions such as the BBC and Ofgem.  There is commitment to further devolution for Wales, but not for Scotland.

Labour’s Scottish manifesto commits to further devolution in employment policy, but with minimum standards set at the UK level.  The main distinctive feature of the Welsh Party’s manifesto is a clear commitment to campaign for Remain in any future referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. But Labour’s ambition is to use the UK state to transform society. They hope that rapid progressive UK-wide transformation will reduce the appetite for independence in Scotland. While there is a flavour of partnership with Labour-led Wales, a UK government driven agenda for substantive policy change will rub uncomfortably against devolved powers.  Whatever the motivation, large-scale augmentation of UK state powers will alter the balance between Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Stormont.

Labour offers England regionalism, though more in a technocratic rather than democratic form. It does include a vague commitment to decentralizing decision-making, including support for the One Yorkshire initiative. Labour main manifesto describes working through a network of English Regional government offices ‘to make central government more attuned to our English regions’. As part of its commitment to renationalize energy supply, it commits to establishing 14 new Regional Energy Agencies, under a new UK National Energy Agency.

Labour reinforced this technocratic approach for England when, a week after the main manifesto, it published manifestos for nine English regions. Broadly, they follow a common template – which includes the creation of a ‘Government Office’ for each ‘region’ outside London. Labour promises to devolve spending to these Offices, but makes no mention of democratic devolution to these regions.  Overall, the impression is that a Labour government would implement a common programme through these regions.  London is the exception. Labour is working through the established system of London government, and its manifesto is co-introduced by Sadiq Khan.

Despite briefly boasting of a proud record of upholding and strengthening devolution, the Conservatives project a centralist vision of the Union.  Their aim: to bind together the whole of the United Kingdom.  As in 2017, the manifesto names the party as Conservative and Unionist.  While it drops Theresa May’s ‘Precious Union’ slogan; Johnson reprises his ‘awesome foursome’ phrase. The manifesto is light on detail but heavily larded with very specific promises. It defers detailed discussion of the future of the Union to Lord Dunlop’s review of UK Government Union capability.

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