Ian Swanson: Antagonising Scotland will break up UK

Nicola Sturgeon is joined by the newly elected SNP members of parliament outside the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon is joined by the newly elected SNP members of parliament outside the Houses of Parliament. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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THE election has left Britain a more polarised country than ever before – an almost entirely yellow Scotland ranged against a predominantly blue south of England.

And, ironically, the new geographical divide is as much down to the party which claims to believe most in the Union as to the party seeking independence.

The Conservatives deliberately fostered resentment south of the Border over the idea of the SNP holding the balance of power and created fears about the possibility that a band of Scots MPs could push Labour to 
introduce radical policies.

English voters appear to have responded as the Tories hoped. Instead of a minority Labour government dependent on SNP support – which is what most Scots said they wanted – David Cameron is back in Downing Street, this time with an overall Conservative majority and the SNP block is not after all crucial to govern.

The Nationalists do, however, have 56 out of Scotland’s 59 MPs and cannot be ignored. Their status as the third biggest party in the Commons gives them real weight at Westminster – places on committees, guaranteed questions in the chamber and millions of pounds in operating costs.

The new government appears to acknowledge the dramatic mandate handed to the SNP last Thursday. After being appointed Scottish Secretary, David Mundell said he accepted Nicola Sturgeon’s statement that it could not be business as usual. And although Ms Sturgeon says the Prime Minister has so far given her no indication he plans to go beyond the Smith Commission proposals for more powers for Holyrood, there is speculation the Tories might want to offer full fiscal autonomy, aka devo max – control of all spending and taxation in Scotland.

At the same time, other senior politicians have criticised the Smith Commission package and urged a UK constitutional convention to sort out not just a new settlement for Scotland, but also devolution to English cities and regions, more powers for Wales and Northern Ireland and the question of “English votes for English laws”.

Labour’s former first minister Jack McConnell branded the Smith scheme “a shambles” which would “fall apart in due course”. Former chancellor and Edinburgh MP Alistair Darling said Smith had been “completely overtaken” by the election outcome. And Lib Dem former Scottish secretary Michael Moore has said this was a “defining moment” for the UK and Nationalists and Unionists either had to “reach an accommodation or end the Union; it’s that clear”.

Smith may now follow the same pattern as the Calman proposals which led to the Scotland Act 2012, many of whose extra powers will come into effect later this year: it begins as a panic reaction to SNP success, involves much cross-party angst, leading eventually to an agreed package, only for it to be overtaken as a new review is ordered.

There is an argument for letting new powers bed in rather than rushing to increase them further before they have even been implemented.

A constitutional convention may take time, but if it was genuinely inclusive of all sides and ready to debate in public, it might be more likely to come up with a more convincing, agreed and lasting arrangement.

But if the main UK parties want to keep the Union together, they will not succeed as long as one of them continues to encourage animosity towards Scotland for its own political advantage.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com