Britain's 'Constitutional Question' Still Vexes

Blair and Major will have to take into account the nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales

As in 1992, the upcoming British general election on May 1 will focus on economic problems in the face of increased Conservative skepticism over Europe. After 18 years of Tory rule, Britain seems ready for a change. Labour leads by wide margins in most opinion polls.

With Prime Minister John Major facing dissension in his own ranks over greater links with the European Union (EU), as well as increased social fragmentation over education and health policies, Tony Blair is set to become Britain's first Labour premier since James Callaghan lost power in 1979.

Mr. Callaghan's inept handling of a series of union work stoppages that year contributed to what, for lack of a better description, became known as Labour's "permanent exile." It also ushered in the resolute politics of Margaret Thatcher.

One area, however, that may return to vex both Labourites and Conservatives this year is the proverbial "constitutional question." Unlike the United States, Britain has no written constitution. Hence it does not have a legal or political document that addresses the important issues of territorial sovereignty, juridical authority, or regional autonomy. The government has legislation designed to resolve political questions of territoriality. But calls for greater regional and subnational independence in this "United Kingdom" still abound.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales will again be a major focus of elections in those two regions of the UK. Devolution is the return of power to localized or decentralized political units. Because Britain's government is a unitary form of government, unlike the federal system in the United States, the central government in London (i.e. the House of Commons) makes all decisions concerning local government. Parliament enjoys a power similar to that of American states in relation to cities and counties. It can create or abolish local government through its legal control of the territory and politics throughout the UK.

Labour has called for devolution. The party feels that limited fiscal powers ought to be handled in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Cardiff, Wales, respectively. However, it believes foreign and defense policy should stay with the central government in London.

The separatist opposition, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party), have called for an end to what they perceive as their "subordination" within the UK and for independence for their regions in a common European home. In the case of the SNP, another constitutional quandary would arise if it ever got its wish. The SNP argues that Scots deserve representation at Brussels as the 16th member of the EU. It also argues that if the 1707 union treaty with England is dissolved, then Scotland is entitled to EU membership as a sovereign nation state.

The Conservatives have consistently opposed any "Balkanization" of the UK - though with the exception of Northern Ireland, where since the 1970s there has been bipartisan support for a devolutionist settlement to the "troubles."

The 1992 elections saw the constitutional question fiercely debated north of England's border. In the final week of electioneering, however, the economy became the major issue and the Tories did not lose seats to the SNP. Labour, in maintaining the status quo in Scotland, kept nearly 70 percent of the Scottish seats at Westminster in its hands.

The questions for 1997: Can Tony Blair, with his moderate, Clintonesque image, sell his "new Labour" agenda to Britons? At the same time, can he walk the constitutional tightrope in Scotland and Wales to keep the nationalist parties from electoral gains? Although it looks as if he will be the next prime minister, he must not forget another reason for the fall of Callaghan's government in 1979. The SNP pulled its support from Labour's minority government when it failed to deliver on - what else - devolution!

*Kurt W. Jefferson is assistant professor of political science and Martin Francis is the Fulbright-Robertson visiting professor of British history at Westminster College, Fulton, Mo.

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