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While ‘beergate’ dominates headlines, UK politics quietly changes forever

The pundits of London’s metropolitan media are focused on Keir Starmer’s curry. But they’re all missing the bigger story

Stephen Gethins
10 May 2022, 2.22pm

Starmer makes a statement on 6 May 2022, after police announce they will investigate claims he broke lockdown rules last year

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Sunday morning’s politics shows were full of the usual knock-about gossip surrounding the latest scandal gripping Westminster: Keir Starmer’s curry with aides.

So dominant was the news, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that all the political drama of the past week had taken place in London.

Yet, late on Saturday evening, hours before those programmes went on air, UK politics had changed for good.

Sinn Féin had won the most seats – and first preference votes – in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, becoming the first pro-reunification party to ‘win’ an Assembly election.

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Yet the metropolitan media, primarily London-based, chose to focus on the issue closer to home. This follows a pattern.

At last year’s Holyrood elections, the SNP won a strong mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum.

But this win was quickly dismissed by London’s political pundits. They argued that the party did not have a majority, failing to recognise the fact that, with the Greens, there is a healthy pro-independence majority in Holyrood – and that the Scottish parliament uses a proportional electoral system.

In fact, had the Holyrood elections used the first-past-the-post system, then the SNP winning 86% of constituency seats would have been the equivalent of winning 559 out of 650 seats in Westminster – far greater than Boris Johnson achieved in his 2019 ‘landslide’ victory, which allowed him to pursue the hardest possible Brexit deal.

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In short, the UK is in trouble. Voters have backed an independence referendum in Scotland and a Northern Irish party seeking Irish reunification. But you would never know it if you listened to debate and discussion at Westminster. 

This failure to grasp the fast-changing nature of the UK is part of a broader pattern of seeking to understand the UK through the limited prism of Westminster politics. All too often, the UK is treated as a single entity with a one-size-fits-all political environment, rather than a complex multi-national entity. This is leading to an unravelling.  

‘Too difficult’ to understand

One of the greatest frustrations of my pro-union friends and colleagues is the absence in government of people who really value and understand the union. This is especially the case among senior Conservatives, who repeatedly need reminding of the complex, asymmetrically devolved nature of the state they govern.

Ahead of the 2019 general election, the party was quite prepared to sacrifice Scottish Conservative MPs to win seats in England’s ‘Red Wall’, despite knowing the strain this would put on the union. Similarly, legislation is proposed without recognising its impact on the devolved settlements and meetings with devolved ministers are even forgotten. 

The Labour Party, too, appears unwilling to take the reform of the UK seriously, lest it be accused of being in cahoots with the Scottish nationals. Attacking the SNP might provide short-term political gain in England but has consequences for the long-term viability of the UK. The party remains popular, and a succession of polls has shown that two-thirds of Scotland’s under-55s back independence. People of working age no longer identify with the state for which they carry a passport. 

The running sore of Brexit brings these differences to the fore. That decision went against the wishes of two out of four of the constituent parts of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are now among those suffering most from its consequences.

Leaving the EU, coupled with the failure to reform UK institutions to recognise devolution, means that for many, any talk of a partnership of the UK nations is very hollow. There is even a question as to whether devolution can be respected at all in post-Brexit Britain, given the centrality of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty to the project. The UK remains one of the most centralised states in Europe, both in terms of its institutions and attitudes.

Scots of working age no longer identify with the state for which they carry a passport

While there are serious challenges for backers of Irish reunification and Scottish independence, these are at least starting to be addressed. On the other hand, the challenge for those who back the UK – to win back those who no longer see a future in the union – is hobbled by the attitudes of its supposed supporters.  

Instead of grasping that reality, England’s politicians often treat Scotland and Northern Ireland as simply too difficult to understand. That is a pity. Regardless of the future of these islands, we must seek to understand one another and the driving forces behind our decisions.

Those who believe in independence, like me, must seek to understand the politics of our neighbours, while those who back the union need to understand the citizens they seek to govern.

Right now, it looks as though the UK is drifting apart without so much as a backward glance from the politicians tasked with its integrity, or the commentators supposed to hold them to account.

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