It certainly is interesting times in British politics. The result from the Scottish referendum may have been an anticlimax for some, however its effect in initiating a shift in the well-set fault lines of our political system is extremely significant. With all respect to Alex Salmond, he promised his voters a referendum, and not only did he deliver on his promise (a rarity amongst politicians these days), but in stoking the fire on Scottish independence, he has sparked a wider debate on the division of power in Britain.
Perhaps there was an air of arrogance within the Prime Minister when he initially agreed to a referendum in thinking that the Scottish Nationalists couldn’t possibly put together a serious campaign for independence. Little did he know that Mr Salmond would take the debate to the wire; Indeed, the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson commented that he could ‘smell the anxiety’ whenever he was near David Cameron and Ed Milliband towards the end of the campaign. It eventually took all the key figures from Westminster to come together in Scotland, making emotional pleas to the undecided voters to stay within the United Kingdom, with the promise of further powers to Scotland.
So just how did the Scottish Nationalists cause such a political storm? The principle sentiment they seemed to have played on was the disillusionment of the voters with the political class of Westminster; an increasing band of career politicians who simply cannot relate to the struggles of the average British citizen. Political analysts have used this same sentiment as an explanation for the rise of UKIP. If voters used the European election as a way of sending the message to the three main political parties of their disillusionment, then the Scottish referendum was another chance to send a stronger warning to them, and whilst Mr Cameron may have played down the result from the European elections (after all, who takes them seriously?), he certainly was wiping the sweat off his brow following the referendum result.
We are now left with the discussion on power distribution within the United Kingdom. In their pleas to persuade Scottish voters that we are ‘better together’, a promise for greater powers for the Scottish assembly was given. To go back on this promise would of course be a reckless move. However, Mr Cameron has thrown down the political gauntlet to the opposition by stating that alongside discussions on devolution of powers to Scotland, there must be concomitant negotiations that only English MPs can vote on English laws. After all, how could it possibly be fair that Scottish MPs can vote on English affairs, yet the opposite not be true?
Mr Cameron has played an extremely shrewd political move from a number of perspectives. It certainly has put Mr Milliband on the back foot; after all, he ‘vowed’ along with Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg to grant Scotland extra powers over tax and welfare. Yet on Sunday, when questioned on the Andrew Marr show, Mr Milliband repeatedly refused (13 times) to answer the question on whether he supported the ‘English rule’ plans set forth by Mr Cameron. After all, much of Labour’s voice in parliament comes from Scottish MPs, and negating their impact on English matters could harm Labour’s chances of securing a majority on fundamental issues. Moreover, David Cameron’s timing couldn’t have been any better; at the time of the Labour party conference when the party should be highlighting the key points of its election manifesto, interest has instead shifted on the party’s position on devolution.
Whilst these political games are interesting to watch, they do little to address the real disillusionment of the British public with Westminster politics; if anything, they entrench such sentiments further. Has Mr Cameron really put the policy of ‘English Votes for English MPs’ in order to empower the people of England, or has he done it to kick Labour where it hurts most and strengthen the ‘eff-ing Tories’ in the Houses of Parliament? On the other side, why is Mr Milliband so hesitant to agree to a fairer system of power distribution within the UK? Is he just as guilty as Mr Cameron of putting his party before his people? If Mr Milliband were to agree in principle with Mr Cameron’s proposals and show that he is willing to work for a fairer democratic system despite the hit his party might take, it may just work in his favour.
However, if we do go down the path of limiting the voting powers of Scottish and English MPs to the issues of their respective countries on the principle that this would be a fairer system, then a further debate must be had on the devolution of power within England. The London Assembly has autonomy over a number of key areas, such as transport, policing, housing and environment. Whilst London MPs can debate the impact of these issues on other major cities in England, MPs of those cities cannot do the same for London. Given that the Labour party will be putting forward proposals this week to give greater control to cities in England so that they can dictate how budgets on transport, welfare and housing are spent, this must spark a wider debate on devolving power within England, so that cities can be given greater autonomy on how they are governed. In doing so, voters will be empowered with the sentiment that they have a greater chance to effect change within their localities, in what most certainly would be a more ‘democratic’ system than the current status quo.
The devolution debate has only just started, and early exchanges suggest that it will be an extremely interesting one. However, one hopes that behind the political to-ing and fro-ing, ultimately it will be the people of Britain who benefit from a democratic system that enables their concerns to be addressed in a more efficient manner. Let’s hope the political class have taken on the warnings sent out by the electorate in recent months, and takes the necessary steps to empower them once again.