UK: Political and institutional effectiveness

Content Type
Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
Politics, Summary, Background, Political forces at a glance
Political Geography
United Kingdom

Political outlook: Political and institutional effectiveness

The next five years will be a period of momentous political and constitutional change. The unexpectedly decisive nature of the Conservatives' election victory in May 2015 paved the way not only for a reshaping of the UK's often fraught relationship with the EU, but also for a redrawing of the UK's political map, with England and Scotland now on increasingly divergent paths. The biggest uncertainty hanging over the institutional make-up of the UK is its relationship with Europe following the UK's exit from the EU. The Brexit vote confirmed that the majority of British people do not trust EU institutions and believe that these bodies interfere too much in domestic affairs. Brexit will be a time-consuming process that will leave little room for other legislation or constitutional reforms.

The coming years are likely to see the fraying of constitutional ties within the UK, with Scottish voters being increasingly alienated by what they see as the indifference of politicians in the UK-wide parties and by the UK's departure from the EU. Far from sapping the momentum of nationalist politics in Scotland, the rejection of Scottish secession in a referendum in November 2014 galvanised the position of the Scottish National Party (SNP) as the dominant political force in Scotland. The party won 56 of the 59 available Scottish seats in the 2015 election, up from six previously, in an astonishing surge of support. The result reflected the Scottish electorate's hardening position on a fundamental point: the perceived need for greater political and economic autonomy to prevent Scotland being subject to majorities formed elsewhere in the UK.

There is a range of ways in which the central authorities might respond to the rise of Scottish nationalism. These stretch from full Scottish independence to more limited arrangements granting Scotland greater autonomy in specific areas, such as fiscal policy. It is possible-if unlikely-that Scotland's assertiveness could lead to a quasi-federal outcome for the entire UK. Regardless of the progress made in any of these directions during this parliament, the result of the 2015 election marked an important change in the UK's political geography. The Labour Party lost 40 seats in Scotland. Given the shifting political dynamics in Scotland, it cannot expect to win them back and will struggle to win a UK-wide election.

The Conservative government is expected to implement two further institutional changes that will harden the separation of Scotland and England and raise structural obstacles for the Labour Party. The first is a set of revisions to the boundaries of the UK's parliamentary districts, aimed at ensuring a more equitable distribution of seats according to population. These changes will probably provide the Conservatives with another 15-20 seats.

The second change is the implementation of a Conservative promise to ensure that "English votes for English laws" becomes the norm in parliament. The aim is to remedy an anomaly that has persisted since powers started being devolved from the UK parliament to regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At present Scottish parliamentarians in Westminster-the UK's central parliament-are entitled to vote on all issues, including those that have been devolved to Scotland. This gives them influence over policies applied in England, whereas English parliamentarians enjoy no similar right to influence the policy choices made on these issues in Scotland.

Removing this anomaly by preventing Scottish parliamentarians from voting in Westminster on devolved policy areas would have material effects. In the absence of a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Labour, the Conservatives will remain the dominant political force in England. The greater the range of powers devolved to Scotland, the smaller the range of powers on which Labour would be able to exert a decisive influence in England. The Conservative Party holds a majority of 12 in Westminster. In a vote involving only English parliamentarians, that figure would increase to 105. With England accounting for about 90% of the total UK population, a party that cannot marshal a majority in England cannot hope to wield power in the UK.

Data provided by: