Why the UK could break up soon

Cameron success is a surprise win but uncertainty dogs the UK’s future

Political Tours met with Professor Robert Hazell the one of the UK’s leading constitutional experts on the morning after the vote for a broader look at the impact of the Conservatives’ electoral success.

Professor Hazell’s message was a sobering one; while Cameron has secured a majority government for another Parliament his victory will do little to remove the uncertainty and challenges facing Britain’s immediate future.

If anything the increased number of Conservative MPs in parliament is likely to create vociferous demands for an EU exit and provide an angry English counterweight to Scots demands for more powers.

Professor Hazell has advised consecutive British governments on constitutional reform and has led the Constitutional unit at University College of London for the last 20 years.

Cameron’s first obstacle is to win concessions from the EU and then defeat the drive by British Eurosceptics to withdraw from the 28 member union. The prime minister’s prospect of winning the EU referendum is far from certain. Europe’s leading nations, Hazell says, will have little to offer the Conservatives when it comes to returning powers to London. Ukraine, the future of the Euro and relations with Russia dominate their agenda. They are in little mood to let Britain’s constant wrangling and euroscepticism distract them from more important priorities.

Back home eurosceptics will want to influence both the wording of the referendum and have it held as soon as possible. Civil servants will advise the government that preparation for the referendum needs to be made well in advance so the issue is likely to dominate the new parliament from the outset.

Cameron has fewer tools to reign in wayward backbenchers as he had at the start of the last parliament. Previous prime ministers such as John Major could threaten to hold an election in which Conservative MPs would worry about losing their seats. That is no longer an option since the introduction of fixed term Parliaments by the coalition government in 2011. Tory MP’s will also be less worried about towing the line to keep a coalition government of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives together. Hazell quotes another political expert’s estimate that there could be as many as 100 eurosceptics in the party. It will take just seven MPs for the government to lose a vote in the Commons.

The second and arguably far greater challenge is Scotland’s demand for greater powers and how English MPs and the UK government will handle them.

The success of the SNP has built up momentum for even further powers to be transferred to the Scottish parliament beyond that which was promised in the run up to the Scottish referendum. Hazell warns that without a carefully examined and agreed constitutional settlement, these powers in themselves could make the Union untenable.

Pitted against this surge of nationalism across the border is an increasingly uneasy England. Cameron he argued has unleashed a Pandora’s box by promising English votes on English law, (EVEL) curbing the right of devolved nations in the UK to vote on English matters.  But he warns this is both technically difficult to achieve and politically divisive. A policy paper put together by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives in the wake of the referendum revealed deep divisions even within the Conservative party.

The secret of the UK constitution’s success for want of the better word is England should not flaunt it’s power or seek to compete with other nations as it is overwhelmingly dominant. The ability of English parties to command majorities in the House of Commons is representation enough. There are arguments for much greater devolution of power at regional and county levels.
Professor Hazell noted that Scotland is already scheduled to have significantly legislated and fiscal authorities transferred to it, even before promises made by  Gordon Brown and UK party leaders in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. While the Scottish electorate maybe unaware of that it suits the SNP to demand further powers and not underline how much they already have. Nevertheless there is a demand for a new political settlement that satisfies the Scots and keeps them within the union. And for that Cameron needs vision, the support of his own backbench MPs, and the agreement of the opposition.

Political Tours examines all of these issues at the end of May 2015 with a tour that examins the future of the UK.  The End of the Union? runs from May 30 – June 2.