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Op-Ed

Blair’s bombshell: How Scottish devolution blew up the British general election

Fiona Hill and Philippe Le Corre

In 1998, the British Parliament fulfilled an election promise that then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had made in 1997 and passed the Scotland Act, paving the way for Scotland to elect its own legislature. In 1999, almost 300 years after the old “Estates of Scotland” were absorbed into the Palace of Westminster, an independent unicameral Parliament returned to Edinburgh. For the next 15 years, the Scottish executive and Parliament focused on the nuts and bolts of institution building and governance. Then, in September 2014, Scotland exploded. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) presided over a referendum on national independence that sent shock waves across the United Kingdom.

Days before the referendum, with the race too close to call in polling, the Scottish Labour Party scrambled to ramp up a “Better Together,” or “No,” campaign, which received a behind-the-scenes assist from the virtually moribund Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Labour’s performance was feeble. Had it not been for voters’ fears about negative economic repercussions of independence and a rousing 12th-hour speech in defense of the union from former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown—a Scot with a flair for fiery oratory—the “Yes” votes might have won the day. In the event, the SNP lost the referendum. But the Labour Party seems to have lost Scotland.

Since September, new members have flocked to the SNP and the party has moved from the periphery to become a major political force in British politics. Some pollsters predict the SNP might win as many as 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament in elections this week. This could include a seat for Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader and Scottish first minister, who was the architect of the 2014 referendum. If the SNP eclipses the Scottish Labour Party in its traditional Scottish strongholds, the SNP could deprive Labour of the majority it needs to form a government.

The May 7 British general election thus seems set to rewrite the political legacy of Tony Blair. Up until 2014, Blair—who left 10 Downing Street in 2007 after a decade in power—was credited with putting Labour back in power after years of failure. Blair won three successive general elections by pulling Labour from left to center, by giving more powers to Scotland and other local authorities after decades of centralization under Conservative Party governments, and by essentially usurping key elements of the Conservatives’ economic and social agenda. His twin goals were to strengthen the Labour Party and to strengthen the union.

In 2015, both look weaker than before, and Blair’s political heirs are dealing with the unintended consequences of his policy success. Scottish devolution led the United Kingdom to the brink of dissolution in 2014—and it may well again. Blair’s blurring of the traditional British party distinctions in creating “New Labour” has resulted in one of the most contested and consequential elections in decades.

On May 8, there is a good chance that neither the Labour Party under current leader Ed Miliband nor the Conservative Party under incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron will have won an outright majority of votes (a “hung Parliament”). They will both have to consider forming coalition governments—like the current arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; and they will both have Blair to thank for their predicament.

During his time in office, Blair steadily distanced himself from the old Labour base of rank-and-file party activists who entered politics through the industrial trade unions. He filled his cabinet with technocrats and “professional politicians,” who were elected to safe parliamentary seats in the Labour heartland. Blair and many of the people he picked were socially and educationally similar to their ideological rivals in the Conservative Party. New Labour’s MPs had few roots in their constituencies and very little in their personal backgrounds that resonated with the average voter. Today, Miliband and Cameron struggle to distinguish themselves from each other and a larger pack of political contenders who are widely seen as members of a homogeneous London-centric elite.

In the midst of their posturing, Nicola Sturgeon, the new leader of the SNP and first minister of the Scottish Parliament, has been hailed as one of the most charismatic British politicians of her generation. One of Sturgeon’s speeches on March 28 in Glasgow was described by a British political commentator as “the kind of speech . . . that a Labour politician in Scotland would have wanted to make and that a Scottish Labour voter would have wanted to hear.” Sturgeon and the SNP have galvanized voters with their anti–Westminster elite, pro-people message. Other national party players such as Wales’s Plaid Cymru and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which will both gain seats in Westminster, have helped amplify this message.

It is a message that also resonates in England, but for different reasons. In the 1990s, Scots felt detached from London because of Conservative government policies in the previous decade that had concentrated political and economic power in Westminster. Now the English feel detached from London because of the devolution of power away from Westminster. Since 1999, resentment has increased in the English electorate about what is sometimes called the West Lothian question: Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs can vote on all matters affecting Britain, but English MPs have no say in the legislative process in devolved territories.

In the late 1990s, there was little demand in England for autonomous English bodies to complement the Scottish Parliament and Welsh National Assembly, but now English voters feel shortchanged by the new system and their own MPs. Scotland and Wales seem to have prospered with their new institutions, and British political leaders scramble to address Scottish and Welsh voters’ demands. In contrast, the main political parties seem to neglect the specific problems of England’s diverse regions. The anti-European UK Independence Party has benefited from this dismal situation, chipping into support for the Conservative Party as well as Labour across England.

No matter which candidate becomes prime minister after the general election, he will have to address the crisis of governance in the United Kingdom and grapple with the prospect of rationalizing and formalizing the existing ad hoc architecture. The dilemma would be most acute for Miliband, who first has to prove that he has sufficient experience, skill, and “common touch” to serve as prime minister. To form a government, Miliband would need a clear majority on May 8. The SNP and Scotland hold the key to that majority. Sturgeon is thus the proverbial “kingmaker” (not the first time in history that a woman in Scotland has played an instrumental role in London power politics).

But a coalition government with the SNP could weaken the Labour Party and the union still further. Scottish independence remains the SNP’s ultimate objective, even after defeat in last year’s referendum. On April 26, Miliband even ruled out a Labour-SNP coalition. But he may still have to rely on SNP votes each time he tries to pass legislation. Some British commentators have advised Miliband to convene a constitutional convention to remedy this situation. Miliband, they argue, should commit himself to rebalancing powers between London and the rest of England, as well as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, by drafting a real constitution—the first in the United Kingdom’s long history.

A weak Labour government would be poorly placed to take on such a monumental task. Similar constitutional reforms have foundered in Spain and immediately across the English Channel in France, where Prime Minister Manuel Valls is battling to streamline France’s complex layers of local government. Nonetheless, Miliband and Labour cannot walk away from dealing with the aftermath of Blair’s devolutionary policies of the 1990s. Indeed, no future prime minister will be able to ignore regional politics outside Westminster. A resurgent Scotland, a rising SNP, the blurring of the distinctions in the British political landscape, the homogenization of party elites, and a messy general election are all Tony Blair’s legacy. After May 7, politics in the United Kingdom will never be the same again.

This article was originally published by
Foreign Affairs

Authors

Philippe Le Corre

Former Brookings Expert

Senior Fellow, Mossavar-Rahmani Center on Business and Government & Belfer Center on Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

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