The elections this May are almost certain to see the return of familiar faces of both nationalism and unionism. Of course I’m referring to the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, whose electorates will go to the polls on 5 May and then again most likely later in the year for the referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU.
Whilst there is unlikely to be a change of government in either devolved body, the added spice of the EU membership issue could affect the UK’s delicate constitutional balance and the functioning of its constituent parts. Both Edinburgh and Cardiff’s governments are unambiguously in favour of staying-in the EU, but it’s the UK itself where they differ, and the SNP government under Nicola Sturgeon is widely believed to seek a second referendum on Scottish independence in the event of the UK voting to leave. In these circumstances, she said, a second referendum would be “probably unstoppable”.
Any increased chance of a second referendum being won by the nationalists is being partly generated by the Conservative government at Westminster, who seem less concerned with the unity of the UK with each month. The Tory government’s desire to press the ‘England button’ at Westminster was demonstrated clearly last week when the controversial “English Votes for English Laws” (or EVEL) system was used for the first time in the House of Commons.
The coming of EVEL prompted the DUP’s leader in the House of Commons to voice his party’s “profound fear” of what it might do to the fabric of the union, but Wales’ First Minister Carwyn Jones was more descriptive, saying:
“The Union is being held together by sticky-tape and plasters“
Jones and his Labour government are gearing-up for both the Assembly and the European vote. You may have missed it but last week he debated UKIP’s Nigel Farage in a live TV debate in which aside from the usual economic arguments for staying-part of EU Jones was clear that staying-in the European Union was essential for the sake of the British one. He tweeted,
“Wales is a confident nation and we have a confident future – but I want that future to be part of the UK & part of the EU”.
Welsh Labour figures have often sounded similar warnings about the future of the UK if it were to leave the EU. Farage and the cheerleaders for Brexit prefer to ignore this potential consequence, but as Scottish commentator Alex Massie noted this week “those arguments are not connected to the mood in Scotland.”
Carwyn and many in who intend to vote to stay in the EU feel as Massie’s put-it:
“if you think the survival of the UK as it is presently understood is a matter of importance then you need to be wary of rushing to actions that might imperil that survival”
However such anxieties don’t yet seem to have transferred over the DUP, where the new First Minister hasn’t yet joined the call to remain (or leave). Yesterday in the House of Commons Sammy Wilson again stressed the benefits (as the he saw them) of leaving the EU, while Nigel Dodds limited his time at Prime Minister’s Questions to asking about the Falkland Islands.
The Northern Ireland football team is due to travel to Cardiff for a friendly in March. Perhaps there’s time for the two First ministers to talk tactics ahead of the coming European challenge?