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United Kingdom divorce in the pipeline?

by Iain Robertson

The political marriage of the Scots and English parliaments was consummated 300 years ago in 1707. In less than a week the Scots may begin filing for divorce. The date of the Scottish parliamentary elections on May 3 could herald the end of three centuries of union. U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair may be opposed to separation, but history may paint him as one of its leading architects.

The war in Iraq is widely resented among Scots; many blame the Labour leader for sending troops under false pretenses. With the Scottish National Party (SNP), the current opposition to Labour, opposed to Scottish troops being stationed in Iraq, support for the party is on the increase. While this is the nationalists’ stance, winning power in the elections would not signal a return of Scottish troops. Such decisions are the reserve of Westminster, which has led the electorate to question the status of its parliament.

Initially greeted with great enthusiasm and high expectations, at its inauguration in 1999, many Scots are now disenchanted with their Edinburgh parliament. As a result of its devolved status, key powers, including defense and foreign policy, are made in London. It has commonly been referred to as a talking shop, being impotent in major policy areas.

The vast majority supported the return of the parliament in 1999. Indeed, the Blair government legislated for, and supported the referendum, which brought it into existence. It was seen as the answer to Scottish calls for home rule. Detractors had warned it would inevitably begin the breakup of the United Kingdom; sited as the slippery slope toward independence. Since its inception it has raised significant questions about the political map of the entire U.K.

While apparently toothless, there is no English counterpart. Devolution did not see the creation of an English parliament. Leading to the anomaly, referred to as the west Lothian question, whereby politicians from Scottish seats in the U.K. parliament can vote on all of England’s domestic policies, but those holding English seats have no say on the domestic and devolved issues decided in Edinburgh. With Gordon Brown, a Scotsman, holding a Scottish seat, in line to succeed Tony Blair as U.K. prime minister, many both sides of the border can see that the current constitutional settlement is unfair.

Unlike U.K. elections, where the electorate generally divide themselves between Blair’s Labour Party and the conservative opposition, it is the Scottish National Party that is Labour’s opposition north of the border. Opinion polls have been showing a solid lead for the SNP. Never before have the nationalists led in the polls so close to an election; their campaign slogan “It’s time” may be on the money. However, if they find themselves the largest party on May 4, independence is far from inevitable. Their pledge is to allow the public to decide, in a referendum, scheduled for 2010.

First, they wish to build credibility, in government, under the current settlement: viewing this as the foundation for winning a vote on independence in 2010. The nationalists, led by Alex Salmond, argue Scotland should follow the example of other, small, successful nations. The independent nations of Ireland, Iceland and Norway are referred to by Salmond as an “arc of prosperity” around Scotland: success stories the nationalists wish to emulate. They highlight that Scotland is rich in natural resources, including North Sea oil, and matching the success of these nations is well within Scotland’s capabilities. Labour advocate the financial benefits of union, claiming independence would come at a huge cost to the taxpayer. The polls are indicating the nationalist argument is winning, but success is far from guaranteed.

The only real guarantee comes May 3, due to the proportional-voting system of the Scottish election, is that no one party will win outright control. Coalition government is almost inevitable. If the nationalists’ are the largest party they will be entering negotiations in a strong position to win agreement on their policy for an independence referendum. What seems certain is that a marriage with so many issues and problems will struggle to survive in the long term.