LONDON/GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – Scotland’s “no” to independence may have saved British Prime Minister David Cameron his job, but sweeping pledges of a constitutional shake-up could undermine his re-election drive and trigger more political instability.
Responding to what he called a “clear” rejection of Scottish independence on Friday, Cameron, who is up for re-election in May 2015, promised to begin a process that would see Scotland granted further powers.
“This is definitely better for Cameron than a vote for independence, but imposing this timetable means there’s really no breathing space,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “The idea they can have some major constitutional settlement sorted out by the election is incredibly ambitious.”
Cameron also said he wanted to see more powers devolved to Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as changes for England, starting with new voting arrangements in the British parliament.
Some, including in his own party, feel he promised too much.
“This result presents both opportunities and challenges for Cameron,” said Matthew Ashton, a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. “On the one hand, he can make claim to the title of ‘the man who saved the union.’ On the other, he’ll now have to deliver on his extraordinary ambitious promises of a new constitutional settlement.”
The previous day, Scots voted against breaking away from the U.K. by 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent.
The result prompted Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister who led the independence campaign, to resign.
In the closing phase of the referendum campaign, Cameron and other party leaders made detailed promises to Scotland about future funding and new tax and spending powers — a move that some of his own lawmakers described as a “panicky” response to opinion polls that suggested the vote was too close to call.
It will be difficult for him to renege. “The genie of a more devolved U.K. can’t be put back in the bottle,” a senior source in the Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s coalition partners, said after Cameron set out his plans. “The world has changed.”
Cameron, who might have been cast aside by his party as the leader who lost Scotland had the vote gone the other way, said the constitutional changes should be agreed on as a package by the main political parties before the next election, so they can be implemented in the next 2015-2020 parliamentary term.
With Scotland being given more say over its own affairs, Cameron says lawmakers from England, which comprises 83 percent of the British population, should also have a way to decide issues for themselves. That might mean setting up a system to keep Scottish members of the British parliament from voting on U.K. policies that do not apply to self-ruling Scots.
Such a system could be good for Cameron’s Conservatives, whose base is in England and who have been all but wiped out in Scotland. But it is tricky for the opposition Labour Party, which relies on Scottish support in Westminster and whose last U.K. prime minister, Gordon Brown, was a Scot.
Labour won 41 of the 59 Scottish House of Commons districts in the 2010 election, against the Tories’ one. Without the Scottish seats, Cameron would have won a majority in 2010. The most recent YouGov poll, published Friday, put Labour support across the U.K. at 35 percent, with the Tories at 33 percent. Standard calculations suggest that might give Labour about 333 seats in the Commons — a majority of 16 — an advantage that would be wiped out if 40 or so Scottish Labour lawmakers are barred from voting on some issues.
It is hard to see a quick consensus emerging within months among major parties about a reform that could cost a future Labour government the power to pass laws through an English caucus potentially controlled by the Conservatives. Labour leader Ed Miliband said plans for change needed to be put to members of the public through a constitutional convention, rather than be “fixed solely by politicians or prime ministers trying to shore up their position in their own party.”
Labour proposed the constitutional convention for autumn 2015 — after the next general election — which Cameron’s Conservatives said amounted to kicking the issue “into the long grass.”
Across the political spectrum, politicians said Cameron had opened up a question that will be hard to solve quickly because of partisan political differences and could hand an electoral gift to populists such as the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party. Such wrangling also risks political paralysis.
Failure to deliver greater powers to English lawmakers could leave Cameron vulnerable to the electoral threat of UKIP, whose leader, Nigel Farage, promised to champion English voters.
So far, much of the criticism has come from Cameron’s own lawmakers, who have already begun to complain that his promises to the Scots are too generous and his pledges to England too limited and hard to deliver.
“The chaotic manner in which the ‘no’ vote was won has undermined the strong and strong and resilient United Kingdom on which we all depend,” said Owen Paterson, a Conservative lawmaker and former minister. “Such a lopsided constitutional settlement cannot last; it is already causing real anger across England. If not resolved fairly for all the constituent parts of the U.K. for the long term, it will fall apart.”
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Percy said Cameron’s proposal to allow only parliamentarians from English constituencies to vote on English matters was welcome, but wasn’t enough. “Now it’s England’s turn for a say, and we won’t settle with being fobbed off with a few crumbs of change,” he said. “That means a proper conversation about an English parliament, English executive and English first minister.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson said Cameron’s promise to maintain Scotland’s current funding deal — which means Scots get substantially more government money per head than the English — was “slightly reckless” and shouldn’t be honored in its current form.
Rob Wood, chief U.K. economist at investment bank Berenberg, said in a research note there was “likely to be a backlash from MPs (members of parliament) against particularly Prime Minister Cameron for guaranteeing generous funding and more powers for Scotland without consulting parliament. “The same may be true for non-Scottish voters. That brings risks with it,” he said.
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