The Still-United Kingdom: Devolution and After

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, August 2001 | Go to article overview

The Still-United Kingdom: Devolution and After


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


THE British Labour Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair won a constitutionally important victory in the June 2001 General Election along with its political triumph in securing re-election with only a slight reduction in its vast majority. (For the statistics of voting see the July issue.) It won well enough in Scotland and in Wales to suggest that its experiments in parliamentary devolution have survived their first major political tests and, at least for the time being, have consolidated Labour's traditional strength there without damaging the main structure of the United Kingdom.

Blair's 'New Labour' concept is not vital to his party's success in Scotland and Wales, where old-style Socialism could have remained a dominant political force and the nationalist parties are tempted to strike left-wing poses, but the General Election results suggested that the initial stage of devolution had been successful and popular enough to overcome frustrations and discontents and to make it even more difficult than in England for the Conservatives to claw their way back from the disasters of 1997.

There are still no Conservative MPs in Wales, where there was no net change in the party positions, but the Scottish Conservatives re-entered the House of Commons by taking Galloway from the Scottish National Party (SNP), the only Scottish seat to change hands. But they saw their share of the vote (15.6 per cent, well below that in Wales) fall from 1997 and slip behind that of the Liberals, who were apparently undamaged by their various formal or informal pacts with Labour. They held their Scottish seats easily and were the only major Scottish party to increase their share of the vote (to 16.4 per cent).

While the SNP remain the second-largest party in Scotland in votes, their share of the poll fell by 1.8 per cent to 20.1. Neither they nor their Welsh equivalents, Plaid Cymru, gathered momentum from devolution and their strong showing at the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly. Both appeared to suffer from the way their leadership and propaganda had been focused on the politics of Edinburgh and Cardiff rather than Westminster. The SNP's five seats and Plaid Cymru's four MPs do not give them much leverage at Westminster in their attempts to gain even their immediate objectives - in one case more financial power and autonomy for the Scottish Parliament and Executive and in the other the extension to Cardiff of some of the greater powers already enjoyed in Edinburgh. Any significant pressures for change are likely to come from within the Scottish and Welsh institutions.

The Blair Government could portray the results in Wales and Scotland, where it held its two-thirds of the seats on 44 per cent of the vote, as something between a thank-offering for devolution and a resounding vote of confidence, but the realities and prospects are not so simple. In Scotland, for example, the overall turnout at 58 per cent was even lower than in Britain generally. Even in seats liable to change hands turnout was far below what British politicians had come to expect in 'marginals'. This was a result which could variously be attributed to even greater than customary 'disenchantment with politics', the failure of the national Conservative campaign, lack of enthusiasm in safe Labour seats, the way nationalism has gone off the boil, and the extent to which the Scottish Parliament has become the focal-point for arguments about health, education, and care of the aged and infirm. Even if the next elections for the Scottish Parliament did not fall in the middle of a Westminster term, when the Blair G overnment's standing may seem less secure, it does not ensue that they would follow the same pattern.

There is already some evidence to suggest variation in voting intentions for the devolved assemblies, with different priorities from Westminster's and a different voting system involving a substantial proportional element, from which nationalists and Tories get even more help than the Liberals. …

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