The UK facing devolution crisis

Will the break-up of the United Kingdom be Tony Blair's legacy of 10 years in power? Political Editor Graham Dines looks considers what would happen if Scotland leaves the union.

By Graham Dines

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STANDFIRST: Will the break-up of the United Kingdom be Tony Blair's legacy of 10 years in power? Political Editor Graham Dines considers what would happen if Scotland leaves the union.

LABOUR is in a panic. A majority of voters in both England and Scotland back the break-up of the United Kingdom, and the blame is being laid firmly at the door of Tony Blair's unequal devolution settlement.

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Support for Scottish independence has reached 52% among Scots and 59% among voters in England, according to an opinion poll by ICM for The Sunday Telegraph. Earlier this month, another poll by The Scotsman found 51% of Scots wanted to break away from England. No recent survey has been done on Welsh attitudes to the union.

The Sunday Telegraph poll also found more than two-thirds of English people want their own parliament, an idea supported by 58% of Scots. A move to complete English independence from the rest of the UK is backed by 48% of voters in England and 45% of their Scottish neighbours.

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The matter will come to a head next May at the elections to the devolved parliament in Edinburgh. If the Scottish National Parliament becomes the largest party and forms an administration with the Liberal Democrats, then the SNP has promised a referendum on full Scottish independence within 100 days.

If a simple majority voted yes to independence, then the fate of the union - which celebrates its 300th anniversary next year - could be sealed.

Scottish and Welsh devolution was promised by Labour in its 1997 election manifesto. After referendums north of the border and in the principality, a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly were established.

The Scots have their own parliament in Edinburgh, dealing with domestic policy north of the border with the exception of immigration, asylum, customs, revenue, taxation, social security, policing and airports.

The national government also retains responsibility for defence, foreign affairs, and membership of the European Union.

Tony Blair's aim with these half-way houses was to strangle the nationalists' demands for full independence for Wales and Scotland.

In England, London was given an elected mayor and full assembly. For the rest of us, nothing at all, with the exception of regional assemblies with few powers and none at all over education, health, police, and local government.

The desire among Scots for independence has hardened in the past seven years and resentment in England about the unequal devolution settlement has grown.

Why should England, with 50m. residents, be treated unequally to Scotland which has just 5m? Why should the Scots receive subsidies funded by England taxpayers that allow free university tuition, a better system of social care, and drugs given to the sick which are denied to the English?

And then there is the West Lothian Question - why should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote at Westminster on health and education legislation which affects only England and Wales when similar policies are devolved to Edinburgh?

The latest opinion poll indicates that if push comes to shove, most of us in England would cheerfully allow the Scots to go their own way to drown under a welter of higher taxation once the generous subsidies of England are withdrawn.

The nightmare scenario is haunting Labour. There's no hiding place for Tony Blair's government - it can't spin its way out of a constitutional mess of its own making.

And if Scotland goes, how long will it be before Wales follows suit? And then what do we do about Northern Ireland - hand it over to Dublin or keep it tied to England?

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Home Secretary John Reid and Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander used appearances at Labour's Scottish conference over the weekend to defend the union while baiting the SNP.

Mr Blair warns of a “constitutional crisis” if the SNP wins control of the Scottish Parliament But SNP leader Alex Salmond counters that Scots are tired of being ruled from London.

To be fair to Mr Salmond, he recognises the dawning English resentment at the influence of Scottish MPs in English affairs. His MPs refuse to vote at Westminster on English only legislation.

Electorally for Labour, the loss of their Scottish and Welsh power bases would be devastating. Although they would have still won the last three General Elections, the 2005 contest in England alone would have produced an overall Labour majority of 14, with the Conservatives marginally polling more votes than Labour. Add in Northern Ireland, and Labour loses an overall majority.

The SNP will do well next May not because of the devolution issue, but because it will win protest votes against Labour which south of the border will go to the Conservatives.

It is by no means certain the Scots would vote for full independence should they be given the opportunity. If they do pull back from the brink, there must be a radical rethink on the future governance of the Britain.

I support a federal UK, with the four component nations having parliaments with the same powers. A slimmed down Westminster would still retain competence over foreign, defence, asylum, social security and taxation, and should claw back from Scotland powers over policing and transport.

This would eliminate the West Lothian Question and treat all the component nations as equal.

Such a solution may not dampen the fervour of the ardent nationalists, but could be enough to restore confidence in the union across the whole United Kingdom.

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