Last-minute deals turn the spotlight on Westminster

Published by The Financial Times (19th September, 2014)

So the most thrilling political debate in recent British history is over, and the divisive force of nationalism has been defeated for at least a generation. Already those amazing 12 days of panic are melting into the past following the salvation of the union. Unfortunately, there are few signs the mainstream political parties will learn the lessons of what turned out to be a massive exercise in the most positive form of civic engagement. But Scotland should take immense pride in its display of street-level democracy.

Now raw politics kicks in again. At the centre of it all is, inevitably, the prime minister; indeed, the Scottish referendum campaign served to symbolise both the strengths and weaknesses of David Cameron’s tenure. First the bold gamble not to put devo max on the ballot paper, which clearly paid off on Thursday. Then the complacency as the campaign faltered, allowing long-held animosities among the senior Labour figures running Better Together to almost destroy the union, followed by a panicked policy shift. And finally an effortless display of leadership, his emotive interventions in recent days striking the perfect tone for an “effing” Tory in Scotland.

As the smoke clears, both party leaders have been damaged by this desperate struggle to preserve the UK But Mr Cameron can take consolation from the way it reinforced perceptions that his rival Ed Miliband is not up to the job of being leader of his nation. The Labour leader looked peripheral in the heat of battle in his party’s heartland, then was overshadowed by his predecessor’s astonishing comeback in the final few days. This has delighted Tory strategists, who are pinning many of their hopes for next year’s general election on voters’ impressions of Mr Miliband’s inadequacy.

Yet as so often with Mr Cameron’s leadership, the short-term tactics used to snatch a last-minute victory carry long-term strategic costs. Even before the result had come in from my wife’s home region of the Highlands, he had delivered what may come to be called the Downing Street Declaration. In a strong speech, the prime minister promised to give English MPs a greater say over legislation affecting England and – throwing down the gauntlet to Labour – made it clear this would cover the same areas in which powers are being devolved to Scotland, including tax and welfare. Significantly, he pledged to agree this immense constitutional change in just three months.

There was no policy detail, of course, and now the political wrangling starts in earnest as the public gaze turns away to more prosaic matters than whether there should be an English grand committee in parliament. It is clear, however, that the Scottish shock will spark seismic change to the way in which this country is governed; there is no way Westminster can fail to deliver on its hasty last-minute offer of virtual independence to bring waverers back into the No camp. So a minority of voters north of the border has forced the UK into de facto federalism and, quite possibly, towards a more presidential-style of central government.

The idea of English votes for English laws was in the Conservative manifesto at the last election as a sop to the right. But few sensible members of the party really wanted to see the idea enacted; constitutional change always has unintended consequences – as we have just observed. With Ukip leader Nigel Farage rapidly wrapping himself in the St George’s flag and rightwing Tories frothing with excitement, now it looks like finally becoming a reality. “I used to oppose it but the ship has sailed and this was the only way to keep the union together”, one cabinet minister said on Friday morning.

Downing Street believes it is in a strong position, especially with supportive noises coming from Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. The prime minister can pose as saviour of the union while Labour is on the backfoot, forced to decide whether to block devolved powers or agree to reforms that seriously weaken its power in Westminster.

Yet dangers remain. First, that as too often recently, Mr Cameron ends up conceding too much to his enemies on the right over an English parliament and, once again, undermines his centrist appeal to the electorate. Second, Mr Miliband is a smarter politician than his opponents sometimes expect. Third, and more fundamentally, that political shenanigans at Westminster serve to underline the issues of popular dislocation from politics that led so many Scots to seek independence. This would aid Mr Farage’s insurgent force and the Greens, an increasing threat on Labour’s left.

Certainly, the UK has been saved. But the battle for its future has only just begun.

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