10 years of Blair, 300 years of the Union…

The Irish Times notes wryly the coincidence of two anniversaries this Labour Day: Tony Blair’s ascent to office, and the Act of Union of 1707 binding the parliaments of Scotland and England together under the first Act of Union.

The remarkable coincidence of these facts tells a story of major constitutional, political and electoral change under way in the UK. They explain why Blair and Brown have devoted so much effort in recent months to campaigning in Scotland against the SNP. There is a substantial disenchantment among traditional Labour voters there over Iraq, Britain’s Trident nuclear programme and unhappiness with Mr Blair’s policies. They add up to a likely swing against Labour this week. Voters know they would not thereby endanger the constitutional settlement because the SNP will not gain an outright majority but will probably have to reach a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. In that case any constitutional referendum would include options short of independence. As one Labour insider said of such dealings with the SNP: “It is a case of try before you buy”.

This pragmatic streak in Scotland’s political culture should caution against any expectation of precipitate change in the UK constitution. Nevertheless, from the Irish perspective it should be recognised clearly that the elements which have given that settlement historical stability can no longer be taken for granted. Mishandled from London, any surge towards Scottish independence has ample scope to tumble out of control – as it could easily do under a Conservative government.