In British politics there is a crucial distinction between political legitimacy and governmental authority. Essentially any UK government has the constitutional authority to govern as long as it can command the confidence of the House of Commons.
Political legitimacy, on the other hand, stems from a somewhat slippier judgement. This is based on a combination of parliamentary arithmetic, being perceived to be the “winner”, and your ability to form a government with adequate support throughout Britain (I’m deliberately ignoring Northern Ireland since the three main parties do not compete there). In Scotland between 1979 and 1997, for example, the Conservative governments always had governmental authority but they increasingly lacked political legitimacy.
One of the less discussed effects of coalition politics post-2010 was perceptions of UK government legitimacy. Whereas the Conservatives held just one of Scotland’s 59 seats during the life of the parliament (albeit 16.7% of the vote), combined with the Liberal Democrats the government had 12 seats and 35.6% of votes. The legitimacy that this gave the coalition in Scotland is perhaps the key under-stated Lib Dem effect on the politics of the past five years.
The new Scottish establishment
This time it may be quite different, of course. While the 55%-45% referendum vote preserved the territorial integrity of the UK, David Cameron’s linkage of English Votes for English Laws to plans for further devolution to Scotland, just minutes after the announcement of the result, undoubtedly played into Scottish nationalist hands. It was nakedly party political – over 97% of Conservative MPs were drawn from English seats. Since then unionism has been in retreat in Scotland, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) increasing its membership four-fold and looking set to emerge as Scotland’s dominant party at Westminster, and potentially holding the balance of power.
Consequently there are numerous minority, majority and formal or informal coalition post-election scenarios, many of which raise questions of legitimacy north of the border. If the polls are to be believed, a Tory/Lib Dem group looks highly problematic. The Lib Dems look set to lose many of their Scottish seats and the Tories will not improve (indeed may lose) on the one seat they have.
Nor do the prospects look much better for Labour, which has ruled out any deal with the SNP. Scottish Labour is presently only polling in the 27%-29% region, not unlike the Scottish Conservatives vote share back in 1979 and 1983. If polls are to be believed, Labour could end up with fewer seats (ten) than the Conservatives had after the “doomsday scenario” election of 1987.
This coming legitimacy problem has been foreshadowed by the tone of the UK campaign towards the SNP. Cameron’s soothing post-2010 unionist rhetoric ahead of the Edinburgh Agreement, where he and Alex Salmond agreed the terms of the referendum, stands in marked contrast to the UK general election campaigning language of unionism in 2015. The tribalism of Scottish politics has meant that the Labour Party has willingly played along with what social psychologists have termed the “othering” of the SNP. This demonisation of the SNP, Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon is unlikely to feature in the historical highlights of British unionism.
The context is an acceptance across the political spectrum today that the UK is an ever-looser union. Flexibility and pragmatism in UK territorial management have now been firmly established as the post-devolution operating code of UK political elites. The strident unitary unionism of the Conservatives 1979-1997 is the constitutional politics of a bygone era. Yet to date, the unionist parties’ approach to devolution has been grudging, incremental adjustment. The Smith Commission, which was set up to transfer more powers to Scotland after the referendum, was just the latest chapter in this story.
The dog-fight to come
So what happens when legitimacy comes back to haunt us? The old questions of the democratic deficit and doomsday scenarios raised in Scottish politics in the 1980s and 1990s are likely to be seen as a pale preview of the post-2015 political and constitutional dog-fight. The campaign was merely the sparring phase. The SNP is likely to make a weapon of the issue. Post-election the gloves could be off and the very continuance of the union is likely to come under great strain. It will be very much the watch “what happens” of UK politics post-2015.
Constitutional reform will be firmly on the agenda. The roadblock has always been the two main parties. It can only happy if one of them chooses the exit road of a constitutional convention, as Scottish Labour did in the 1980s. It is true that existing arrangements have proved more durable than has often been predicted. The issue of English Votes for English Laws has endured since it first cropped up as the West Lothian Question in the 1970s.
So has the Barnett formula, from which redistribution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are calculated. But this period now looks to be ending. The recent series of constitutional commissions – Holtham in Wales, McKay for all the outlying nations, and most importantly Smith in Scotland – are likely to be seen in history as the precursors of significant constitutional change beyond Westminster.
The problem is that legitimacy issues in Scotland will only be the tip of the iceberg. The prospect of further devolution in Scotland has had the very obvious “what about us?” effect in Northern Ireland and Wales. The UK government appears to be caught up in a logic of events over which it has little control. In short, the old elitist British conception of statecraft based on strong, centralised government looks set to come under increasing strain. The challenge for whoever next takes the reins is to try and find a new settlement.
This piece draws on Neil’s chapter The Coalition Effect 2010-2015, which was published in March.