Wednesday, 3 September 2014

This decisive autumn

As the weather cools, and the nights get longer, so the question will now become: what sort of a nation will the United Kingdom become over the next year or two? Might it even cease to exist? Because this political season bids fair to be the most important for a generation. The nation-state that was created in 1707 might finally come apart; we'll get a much better view of the likely contours of the next General Election, whether or not Scottish MPs will really serve a full term; and we'll see more clearly whether Britain wants to be a European power or an off-shore 'global' player.

First things first: in fourteen days, Scottish residents will have their vote as to whether they want leave the UK. Right now, the odds are rapidly shortening that they will, as the polls narrow and the Yes camp make great big inroads into Labour's working-class support base. Long-time readers will know that Public Policy and the Past thinks that any such vote would be a seriously unwise leap in the dark, but one thing's for sure: even a narrow No vote will change this country forever. 'Devo max', the promised devolution of almost all the British state's remaining Scottish functions to Edinburgh in the even of Scots opting to stay, will inevitably accelerate calls for English, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolution, and accelerate our movement towards political differentiation and specialisation. We'll be covering this one in detail over the next two weeks, and enumerating the reasons why we think a 'No' vote is for now much the most attractive option for Scots themselves. But the momentous nature of the choice, and the knife edge on which the vote now rests, could not be clearer.

We'll then move on to the party conference season, which will witness the usual poll volatility as each party tribe has its say. Only once those numbers have settled down, at some point in October, will we have a really good idea where we stand as we prepare the launch-pad for the 2015 UK General Election. Will Labour be able to consolidate its narrow but stubborn lead in the polls? Commenators have opined for years that Ed Miliband is too unpopular, and Labour too tainted by the financial crisis that blew up on its watch, to be re-elected so soon. But they're having a pretty good stab at it, and their discipline and hard campaigning are sure to be favourably compared by the electorate to the chaos on the political Right.

It'll be a critical election, because then we're onto the third leg of the hard choices before us: will we have a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union? Scotland leaving the Union will of course make any motion to leave more likely (and cause all sorts of headaches for a newly-independent Scotland), because Scots are more likely to think favourably of 'Europe'. If they've left, and/ or the Conservatives can somehow push towards an overall majority, we're likely to have a referendum that will be no cakewalk, and which will probably be extremely tight. Labour have promised that there'll be no plebiscite if they win the election. Alternatively, if David Cameron is still Prime Minister, and he recommends a vote to stay in, then in we'll stay; if his promised renegotiation fails, or he's replaced by a harder-line Euro-sceptic, then out we might come.

So that's it then. Not much to decide then, eh? Should the Union between England and Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) continue? Who should govern the UK, rump or otherwise? And should it be a European power at all? There's been nothing like this conglomeration of choices since perhaps that great period of economic, social and constitutional crisis 1973-76, when the explosion of Northern Ireland's 'troubles', indecisive elections, the rise of Scottish nationalism and the European referendum of 1975 challenged Britons to ask basic questions about who they are and what they wanted.

Stay tuned. It's likely to be quite bumpy.