The 2015 British election and the UK’s creeping constitutional crisis

In the late 90s I met the US ambassador in Paris. He asked what Tony Blair was going to do with the pound/euro issue. I said the question should rather be which of Blair’s subjects he could bring along to take part in any currency deal. By that I meant that the United Kingdom, formed just 300 years ago, was the most unstable polity in the advanced world and could succumb at any time to any combination of constitutional crises: Europe, Scotland, two Irelands, parliament, voting system, monarchy, regional devolution, London’s dominance — you name it. He was pleased and said that the Brits were always condescending to the Yanks in Europe, so next time this happened, he would ask “What are you doing about your creeping constitutional crisis?”.

Fast forward to 2005-6 when I published a couple of articles on the fringe of the London media (Times Higher) about the multi-cultural aftermath of the bombings and the British national identity crisis. I drew on the same repertoire of creeping constitutional crisis, with maybe 15 elements this time.

Well, earlier this year I asked myself what had happened to this prediction. Nothing of course. But being part of a Norway-Scotland project (J. Bryden and O. Brox eds 2015 Northern Neighbours: Scotland and Norway since 1800, Edinburgh University Press) revived the sense I have always had from my friend, John Bryden, that the Scots could lead the way to the “break up of Britain” (I never bought Tom Nairn’s political line, but it was fun). The revelation for me was that the 2015 election created a confluence of circumstances that could ignite a serious set of interactive problems — Scotland, Europe, the voting system, powers of parliament, especially if it was a hung parliament.

So I ran with that scenario and asked what could be immediately disastrous for the status quo (the monopolistic and undemocratic London troika of politicians/bureaucrats, media and finance). The idea I came up with was the demise of the Labour Party. Everyone is asking how the English could vote Cameron in again — and he now has a working single party majority which will ensure that the kind of questions entailed in a hung parliament are deferred indefinitely. I have my own answers to that, but the reason for my cataclysmic speculation went deeper: the Labour Party was seeking election on an unelectable platform. They promised even more austerity than the Tories. They backed Trident. They followed the Tories’ script on Scotland. It’s like Miliband just wanted to ask, How far do we have to bend over in order to be allowed some crumbs of government? And this was not what the parts of the electorate with some sympathy for Labour wanted. Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that a bolder and more compassionate approach would probably pay electoral dividends. In addition he was a weak and unconvincing character. The party itself has fallen into the hands of a North London clique of Guardian-reading social workers whose only aspiration is to be accepted as legitimate members of the national elite. It should be unsurprising therefore that the Labour high command would not allow itself to embrace anything that smacked of socialism and they never knew how unconvincing they were as second-class Tories. Plus of course the SNP was going to wipe them out in Scotland, their regional base since Keir Hardie.

The Tory/newspaper campaign was disgusting. But the English voted Tory because they feel very vulnerable in this post-imperial phase and they are not going to abandon the establishment for an ostrich party wedded to an incoherent and retrograde strategy (we must keep the UK at all costs, even if it is already moribund). Maybe the English will slide by default into xenophobic fascism. But the opposition to the ruling class in London will be formed by a drive for devolution, with the Scots and Sturgeon in the vanguard. One Welsh politician this morning said that if the English vote in Cameron, the Union itself comes into question. Then there is the West country, Yorkshire, the post-industrial Northwest and Tyneside, just for starters. The Labour party could easily break up: Blairites vs old left, Scots going their own way. The politics of the coming period will be about the consitutional settlement, about what comes after the UK.

So this has been my own little private journey so far this year. Thinking about Scotland’s money options in a Scandinavian context certainly pushed me along this road. The question of timing is always hard. The point, however, is to build a coalition of interests that would devolve power away from London and make British politics more democratic and society more just. I am convinced that the whole show could fall — the monarchy, Church and state, the City, Lords etc. It has to come to that really if there is to be any hope of progress.

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