So then, that was the English revolution. I think we might have surprised ourselves a little—we certainly surprised the Media, the Pundits and the Politicians. There was no burning of hay ricks, no stringing up from lampposts—at least not physically, you could say there were metaphorical lynchings—we just quietly turned up at the voting stations and revolted.
The Media and Pundits have largely slunk away, at least for the moment. They’re still barking like dogs in the night, setting each other off, but right now nobody is listening to them. No doubt their day will come again. The Politicians are busy sternly warning each other that things will never be the same again—in some ways they will be and in other ways things have changed—whilst we, the silent voters who suddenly found their voices, are left wondering, a little apologetically, what it is that we have actually done.
Curiously, a newspaper that I have little time for, possibly said it best. ‘Middle England has spoken.’ No doubt there will also be a headline in a Scottish paper that reads ‘Scotland has spoken’. It would pay Dave & Nicola to stop snarling at each other and take a few moments to try and work out exactly what it was the English and the Scots actually said.
Dave should not kid himself that he got a ringing endorsement of Conservative policies. Rather, in my opinion, it was a rejection of extremist policies. The English don’t want the Unions back running the country, they don’t really believe in a wholesale redistribution of wealth, they don’t want high taxes, they aren’t particularly bothered by a few non-doms avoiding taxes, they don’t want the Scots having a say in the affairs in England whist having increasingly less say in Scottish affairs and finally—possibly—have not found a coalition government a happy experience. Our electoral system might have it’s faults, all democratic systems do, but I sense people would rather have the government they voted for, not the government that emerges after a period of negotiated arm-twisting. There is a debate to be had about electoral reform, but in the past changes have been rejected. Self evidently, the majority of English voters don’t believe that money grows on trees and that an increasingly robust economy is not a signal for massive government spending. Ironically, a former Labour minister, Charles Clarke, hit the nail on the head when he asked, on the radio last night, ‘if the NHS is so wonderful why is everybody talking about the need to fix it before it collapses?’ Fixing it will take money and money comes from fiscal responsibility, not profligate spending. English voters might not like that, but they showed that they understand it.
Nicola, understandably triumphant, should enjoy the moment then think about the real message that the Scots sent. Don’t kid yourself that you got a ringing endorsement of SNP policies, particularly in regard to Scottish Independence. The Scots rejected that in the referendum. The massive swing to the SNP was a safe way of saying that Scotland has a strong identity and they want that identity reflected in the UK government. They will have their say on SNP policies when they vote next year in the Scottish Assembly elections.
So, where do we go from here? Yesterday there was much muttering about four separate countries. Tory England, SNP Scotland, Labour Wales and Unionist Northern Ireland. In the main, this muttering was a load of bunkum. For understandably reasons, the people of Northern Ireland have long been preoccupied with the politics of the province and uninterested in the machinations of mainland politicians, except when these directly affect the affairs of Northern Ireland. No doubt they would like more powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the majority are unionist by nature if not party affiliation, and do not want any devolved power that would weaken the Union. The Welsh have their assembly but, Plaid Cymru excepted, seem satisfied with the powers that it has. There are certainly no strident calls for independence and by and large—at the risk of sounding patronising—Wales is happy to jog along, voting Labour for more historical and sentimental reasons than any other. The English have just coughed; discreetly certainly but now determined to be heard, whilst Scotland has said ‘enough is enough’.
Politicians of all stripes now need to move cautiously. If Cameron wants to preserve the Union—and seemingly most people in the United Kingdom want to remain part of a United Kingdom—then he will have to make good on his promises to the Scots. In fact, he may have to go further. It might be wise to give the Scots full control over their economy in matters that affect Scotland and not the rest if the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom needs to present a united face to the rest of the World, so that means the central government in Westminster deciding foreign policy, having control over defence and the armed forces but perhaps over little else. The words ‘Home Rule’ have already been uttered, post election. That may well prove to be the only way of saving the Union but there are problem areas. If the Scottish Assembly, for example, has full control over the Scottish economy—income tax, VAT, benefits et al, what happens if it all goes wrong? If the ‘Scottish NHS’ runs out of money, would Scots be able to head south for treatment? Equally, if Scotland gets it right, should the English be able to head north for treatment?
Whether they like it or not, Dave and Nicola are going to have to have a civilised conversation. If Nicola sends ‘her’ MPs south determined to prove a point then any sensible conversation will be drowned out in the shouting. They—Dave and Nicola —must not allow this to happen. We may be headed for a federal United Kingdom, or it might be we’re headed for partial federalisation—either way, there needs to be a series of quiet conversations, not ill-tempered slanging matches.
Neither the Tories nor the SNP will be forgiven if they get it wrong. They have the examples of Miliband, Clegg and Farage to tell them what happens to the unforgiven.