The British political class returns to business as usual

That the Union is living through perilous days is all but undetectable here in Westminster.

Not a week since the air was thick with talk of coalitions, the only coalition in town is the one between David Cameron and his backbenchers.

The SNP MPs sent down to “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire” are busy undergoing orienteering, settling into their offices, and getting their heads around the expenses system.

They have arrived in a political landscape unrecognisable from the constitutional chaos predicted last week. Where they were expected to be a headache for a minority Labour government, they are now an entertaining curiosity for national and international media. A force in number but without any power.

There are, of course, certain prerogatives enjoyed by the third party at Westminster. The SNP will get two questions at Prime Minister’s Questions and their coffers will swell from millions in short money. Nationalist politicians will be more prominent on TV and radio, they will be sought out by lobbyists pushing their causes, and their views will be tracked closely by government whips.

But on those issues about which the SNP cares – independence, Trident, austerity – it will for the most part be a spectator to the legislative process. The predecessor third party, the Liberal Democrats, were vocal and consistent in their opposition to military intervention in Iraq. It mattered not a jot because the government and opposition were in agreement. There is a similar broad consensus between the Conservatives and Labour on the constitution, the nuclear deterrent, and (with important qualifications) deficit reduction.

The SNP can question, condemn, and traipse through the No lobby. They can use their media pulpit to excoriate the Tories and embarrass Labour in the run-up to the 2016 Holyrood elections. They cannot change things. That is the irony of the Nationalist victory: It was so comprehensive that it has made Scotland less rather than more relevant at Westminster.

The Conservatives have little to lose in political terms by sidelining Scotland; it has long since ceased to be a power base for them. Labour cannot afford to expend political capital in England winning back Scotland. If voting with the Tories on Trident renewal or additional welfare reform forfeits some votes north of the Tweed – mostly for presentational reasons, it must be said – the cost is less than that of further alienating the English centre ground.

As the Tories have shown, you can win a majority at Westminster without Scotland. Had Labour retained a dozen or so Scottish seats or the Conservatives achieved their long-promised, never-seen revival, the two parties would have to pay more attention. Scotland, in the scale of the victory it has handed the SNP, is the author of its own impotence.

If Scotland is on mute politically, the constitutional question is only going to gain volume. In voting against independence but for the SNP, the Scottish electorate has dramatised the inherent flaws in our political system. Far from the colonial imposition of the wilder Nationalists’ fantasies, the United Kingdom is a cooperative partnership and if one partner no longer wants to cooperate, the relationship cannot endure. That partnership has progressively soured. The respective political cultures look very different (even if distinctions in public opinion are minor) and it feels like the line on the map between Scotland and England is hardening into a border.

The Union is now an exquisite form of torture practised by each of the four nations on the others. English Tories tell voters their government can be “held to ransom” by Scottish Nationalists who profess eagerness to “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire”. “Ajockalypse” and “Wastemonster” compete as neologisms; mutual fear and suspicion are never far from the surface. We do not “pool and share resources”; we accuse each other of being subsidy junkies and produce our preferred set of figures to prove it. This does not feel like a governing structure long for our world.

The funereal mood music may cheer Nationalists but Unionists still have some advantages. One is David Cameron, who spent much of the campaign doing ostentatious violence to the Union for electoral gain but who showed during the referendum an uncanny ability to read Scotland, at least for a Tory prime minister. With deft handling and political imagination, Cameron could still avert independence. That would require him to pepper the weak brew of powers proposed by the Smith Commission with something spicy like full fiscal autonomy and, eventually, a federal union. Make the Scottish Parliament responsible for raising and spending almost all its revenue and the constitutional debate will be anchored by economic realities unhelpful to the SNP.

And while the UK transitions to a federal arrangement, the Prime Minister should exercise caution on other constitutional changes. It is imperative that he secure a credible EU reform deal and win a referendum to stay in. Should Scotland vote to remain and England to leave, the SNP would demand a second vote on splitting up the UK – and they would probably win.

Another stramash is looming over Tory plans to pick apart the Human Rights Act. The Conservatives aspire to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights in a country where at least one constituent nation does not feel British. Less than one-third of Scots define themselves as British while 62% say they are Scottish. Half of them just voted for a party committed to the destruction of the British state as currently constituted. This may sound like a point of semantics but language is the lifeblood of politics.

No one is talking about any of this at Westminster. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the British political class, escaping a rendezvous with disaster last September and dodging another close call on Thursday, has returned to business as usual.

If they have, Nicola Sturgeon will get to break her once-in-a-generation promise sooner than she hoped.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © UK Parliament by Creative Commons 2.0.

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