Scottish and English nationalists on collision course
Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30
The self-declared Conservative and Unionist Party won the General Election in England by harnessing English nationalism, and the Scottish Nationalists did the same in Scotland by harnessing Scottish nationalism. The two nations, by the rhetoric of their election campaigns, have thus set themselves on a collision course.
The Conservatives scared English voters with the prospect of a Labour government taking office with parliamentary support from the Scottish National Party (SNP). English voters were persuaded that a Labour government, dependant on Scottish Nationalists, would somehow steal English money for the benefit of Scotland. If there was deep pro-Union sentiment in England, this appeal would not have worked, but it did work.
The implication of the successful Conservative ploy, was that Scottish Nationalist MPs, although freely elected to and sitting in the United Kingdom parliament, would not be fit to have influence on the fiscal policies of the government of the UK as a whole, simply because they are Scottish Nationalists. They are thus cast in the role of "second class" MPs.
The Conservative Party was saying that Scottish Nationalists are not welcome as full participants in the Union, at least as far as having a say in the fiscal policy of the Union is concerned. That was a very anti-Unionist stance for a self declared "Unionist" party to take.
Meanwhile, the SNP itself won support in Scotland on the false premise that a Scotland separated from England could avoid austerity, whereas the reality is that an independent Scotland would, on present policies, have a larger proportionate fiscal deficit than the UK (including Scotland) now has. Arguably, an independent Scotland would have to have more, not less, austerity.
That is not, of itself, a reason for Scotland to reject independence, but if it opts for independence, it should understand, and be willing to pay, the extra cost. This was not teased out because, unlike almost any other country in Europe, Scotland has no serious, centre right, fiscally conservative party.
This is not the first time that the Conservative Party has adopted English nationalism as an electoral tactic.
It did so in the 1911 to 1914 period, when it sought to delegitimise the minority, Herbert Asquith-led Liberal government of that period, on the ground that the Liberals were dependent for their continuance in office on the Irish Party of John Redmond, and were pursuing a policy of Home Rule for Ireland within the UK.
The Conservatives even went so far, at that time, to advocate extra-parliamentary methods to defeat the Home Rule policy of their duly elected UK Government.
The difficulty for today's Conservatives, in again adopting an overtly English nationalist stance to win English electoral support, is its effect on Scottish opinion, over the next five years, when Scotland will being governed, as far as UK matters are concerned, by a Conservative Party that fought an election on the basis that MPs the Scottish electorate have chosen ought not influence UK fiscal policy.
Meanwhile the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on EU membership which could result in English votes taking both Scotland and England out of the EU, even though Scottish voters might, by majority in the referendum, vote to stay in the EU.
In a Union in which England's population is so much greater than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the use of a simple majority referendum to decide such existential questions as EU membership is unnecessarily crude and divisive.
Nationalistic passions are all too easy to stir up, as a means of winning elections, but once kindled they are not easily or quickly extinguished.
Now that the election is over, UK Prime Minister David Cameron needs to break with Westminster's confrontational traditions, and adopt a consensual approach towards all the opposition parties and enlist their help in finding a way of devolving more powers to Scotland without aggravating the rest of the UK, and of negotiating with the EU on a basis that will not further deepen divisions within the UK itself.
John Bruton is a former Taoiseach (1994-1997)