Cameron promises political reform as British election looms. Is EU listening?

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership, while also devolving more powers within Britain following the Scottish referendum. Success at home could boost his chances in Brussels.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron makes his keynote speech on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, October 1, 2014.

British Prime Minister David Cameron rallied his Conservative Party faithful today with a promise to “deliver” on a pledge of “English votes for English laws” after Scots last month wrangled a pledge for increased powers within the United Kingdom. 

“I love this country – and my goal is this: To make Britain a country that everyone is proud to call home,” he said, closing the party’s last conference before next year’s election.

But after Scotland’s close-fought Sept. 18 decision to stay in the union, Mr. Cameron faces tough reforms ahead, not just to give Scotland the devolution it was promised in the heat of the referendum campaign but to assuage the English that the minority Scots aren’t getting the better end of the deal.

It’s unclear how willing, or able, Cameron will be to push through deep change in how Britain is governed. He faces distrust from Scottish nationalists, from the opposition Labour Party, and within his own party, which rules under a coalition government.

If reelected next year, Cameron has said that he will seek to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the European Union ahead of a promised referendum by 2017 on whether to remain in the 28-member bloc.

By addressing Britain’s domestic governance, including devolution and associated fiscal reform, he could prove his reform credentials and fend off Euroskeptic challengers.

If successful, says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels, Cameron could demonstrate to other European nations, from Italy to Germany, that painful state reforms are possible – and that the EU’s current structure has become untenable. 

“He could become a strong political figure of Europe. It would be an enormous reversal of his luck,” says Mr. Techau, who compares Cameron’s potential impact to that of Margaret Thatcher as a modern leader who transformed Britain.

But Cameron faces a daunting task, not least in securing a second term. The Scottish referendum has cost him politically as he underestimated the nationalist fervor brewing north. “He lost a lot of political capital,” says Simon Griffiths, a politics lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. “A lot of politicians in his own party, who are very strongly unionist, see him as the politician who took Britain to the brink of collapse.”

And his promises of more powers for the Scottish parliament has raised a firestorm of protest, especially for English who say that it’s unfair that Scots, the Welsh, and Northern Irish get separate voting bodies, but England only has Westminster

Cameron has said more Scottish devolution depends, in essence, on more English devolution. But the leeway that Cameron has to get there is unclear, says Mr. Griffiths. 

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