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Devolution in the UK: Will Thursday's Election Lead to the Break Up of Britain?

As polling day looms on May 7, the United Kingdom is less united now than it was at the last election — and Scotland could hold the balance of power.
May 5, 2015, 5:40pm
Photo de Matt Dunham/AP

When Scotland made its biggest effort in centuries to break away from the rest of the United Kingdom in a national referendum on independence in September 2014, what was a huge story in Britain was apparently an official non-story on the other side of the Atlantic.

While Scotland's sovereignty does actually have important international significance, the nuances of the United Kingdom's four countries can be lost beyond its borders, where the UK is often seen as synonymous with England.

Perhaps this will not remain the case for long. As political parties have fought the UK's closest general election battle in years, it's become apparent that rather than quashing the pro-independence movement, which lost by less than 9 percent of the vote, Scotland's referendum actually gave it serious momentum. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which led the campaign for independence, is predicted to get three times the votes it secured in the last election, going from the six seats it currently holds in Scotland to perhaps winning all 59 constituencies on May 7.

It is a dramatic change for the SNP and its leader, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who shone in the televised leaders' debates as she attempted to position the independence movement as a credible alternative to the establishment parties. What's more, the British electoral system means that what was for years considered a party on the fringes of British politics might well now become the deciding factor in determining who will rule the country.

Related: VICE News coverage of Scottish independence.

In order to secure a majority, a party needs to win half of the seats in the House of Commons plus one: 326. Both Labour and the Conservatives are polling at around the 275-seat mark, and if that does not change they will have to go either into coalition with other parties, or at least guarantee support from other parties, in order to secure a mandate.

Labour has historically been the dominant party in Scotland and was predicted to win a majority of seats across the UK before the SNP surge. Now that the SNP is on course to take all 41 of Labour's seats in Scotland, Ed Miliband could be faced with the choice of whether to govern with the support of the SNP or concede loss to the Tories. The SNP will not do a deal with the Tories.

The prospect of a coalition between Labour and the SNP has become a central issue of the election and has been used by the Conservatives as the mainstay of their negative campaigning in recent weeks. Labour would become the puppets of a party committed to the break-up of the UK, they have repeatedly warned, and the SNP would use opportunity to pursue a second referendum on independence. Miliband has consistently ruled out a coalition or informal arrangement with the SNP, but some Labour MPs say he should not deny himself that chance to be prime minister.

If the Conservatives can form a majority government (either by winning enough seats or through coalition with other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats), the SNP could benefit in other ways. A Conservative government would allow Scotland to reinforce the position that the country is much more leftwing than England — and that the two are therefore ideologically incompatible. The SNP would also be able to accuse Prime Minister David Cameron of dragging Scotland out of the European Union (EU) which it wants to stay in, thanks to the Conservative Party's commitment to a referendum on Britain's EU membership, should he return to power.

Related: Behind the Political Spin: The British Election. Watch here.

Appetite for independence is unlikely to disappear. It was only in 1998 that Labour began devolving power to Scotland, and 2011 before the SNP could form a majority government. Last year, however, 71 percent of young people aged 16 to 17 voted for independence and 73 percent of over 65-year-olds voted against. Over time the balance could easily tip in favor of the Yes voters. The SNP's promise that the vote was a "once in a generation" opportunity may yet yield results.

The strain is beginning to show on the English. There is currently no separate provision that allows only English MPs to vote for English laws. Cameron last year used the Scottish referendum outcome as an opportunity to call for English MPs to be the only ones to decide on English laws, just as devolution allows just Scottish MPs to vote for Scottish laws.

All of this is set against the backdrop of a trend for increased devolution across the UK. Beyond Scotland, Britain's cities are grabbing the opportunity to attempt to gain more autonomy. Around the world, growth is increasingly driven by cities, but many of England's provincial cities are performing below the national average. A report released last year said allowing regional authorities to set their own policies on major issues such as tax, immigration, transport, and housing could boost the UK economy by $90 billion, 5 percent of GDP. Local leaders believe they can cut down on waste in institutions such as the National Health Service by stopping them from being micromanaged from Westminster.

Devolution is being partially attempted in Manchester, which has joined together with nine metropolitan neighbors to form the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011. It has regenerated large tracts of land, and some of the tax proceeds of economic growth go straight back into infrastructure investment.

The current Conservative/Liberal Democrat government has made a commitment to decentralizing power, coupled with a more hands-off approach to the area of local government. However, at the same time it has made huge cuts to local government budgets in a bid to cut the national deficit — more than 40 percent for some local authorities, with an average 23.5 percent drop across the UK.

"Local budgets make much greater sense as they have a greater ability to spend preventatively," says Jonathan Carr-West from LGIU, a thinktank for local government. "I think in the next 10 years we will go quite a long way towards [local devolution]. The Greater Manchester deal, if successful, will be deemed the thin edge of the wedge by local authorities."

While the benefits seem attractive, Scotland's referendum has reignited concerns that devolution encourages disunity. Could devolution divide Britain?

"I don't buy this notion that greater devolution will fracture our sense of national identity," says Alex Thomson, chief executive of Localis, a localism (or decentralization) thinktank. "We are perhaps one of the most centralized nations in the western world. Neither Germany or the US has an issue with a cohesive national identity. If the current system was going to work then you'd think it might have worked by now."

_Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: _@benbryant