By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Michael Howard, former leader of the British Conservative party, now Lord Howard, told the BBC on Monday that it would be disgraceful for “a UK government (he meant a Labour government) to be dependant on a party which was determined to break up the UK”.
We’ve been here before. Remarkably his words are exactly the same as those his Conservative predecessors used in 1910 to oppose the Liberal government’s Home Rule bill.
The result of the December 1910 election was: Conservatives of various hues 272, Liberals 272, a dead heat. Redmond’s Irish Party plus William O’Brien’s Munster-based All-For-Ireland League mustered 82. The Labour party had 42.
To the outrage of the Conservatives the Liberal leader Asquith (pictured) made a deal with the Irish to enable him to govern in return for supporting Home Rule. Many Conservatives argued later in 1911 that it was unconstitutional for the Liberals to bring in the Parliament Act which removed the Lords’ veto because it was possible only with Irish support and the Irish were supporting it only to break up the UK. The Conservatives objected that the Liberals had no mandate for such constitutional change because they had not won the election.
You’ll hear exactly the same arguments in six to eight weeks time if the outcome of the British election is anything like polls suggest. For some weeks now polls have shown both Conservatives and Labour winning around 280 seats, well short of the magic 326, though incidentally since Sinn Fein don’t take their seats, 320 would do for a Commons majority because the speaker isn’t included. For months polls have also shown the SNP slaughtering Labour in Scotland winning more than 40 seats. The polls haven’t shifted or faded and no-one predicts they will before May 7. Add 40 and 280 and you see why Cameron sounds desperate.
This election is going to confirm a change in British politics which has been happening for at least a decade indicated among other results by the Liberal surge in 2010 which Nick Clegg squandered. The Conservatives are besieged by UKIP in England. UKIP will cause the Conservatives to lose more seats than they will win from the Conservatives. Labour used to take Scotland and Wales for granted but no longer. The voters are looking for radical change but are divided about how to achieve it.
One change is certain, however, and that is more devolution as people in Scotland and Wales flee from Conservative austerity and Labour’s cowardly austerity-lite. Needless to say the only exception is here. The DUP is a far right party opposed not just to the 21st century but the 20th, mainly for religious reasons but these have social and economic consequences too. The DUP actually agrees with austerity and supports welfare cuts because their religious fundamentalism leads them to support pie in the sky when you die rather than charity or ‘good deeds’ today. Their forefathers spread the same nonsense that grew into the Bible Belt in America. Furthermore the DUP opposes any increase in devolution in case it casts them adrift in the Atlantic with hordes of native Irish. They oppose fiscal autonomy or powers to increase (or lower) tax.
Yet it’s going to happen for the SNP and increasingly Welsh MPs will insist on it.
Curiously that takes us back a century, too. Not many people know the Gladstonian Liberals, including at one stage Asquith, advocated ‘home rule all round’. The Scottish Home Rule Association was founded in 1886 and in 1894 the Welsh equivalent, Cymru Fydd. The Labour Party manifesto in June 1918 promised home rule all round.
The rise of the Labour Party and power of trade unions in the 1920s meant devolution wasn’t necessary in order to obtain social justice because Labour dominated Scotland and Wales. Not any more and it’s Labour’s fault since with ‘New Labour’ they deserted their natural supporters.
The rise in support for devolution in Scotland and Wales mirrors the decline of industry and trade unions.
A Labour government after May will have no alternative but to support greater devolved powers for people in Scotland and Wales whose parents would automatically have supported Labour but Labour has let them down in the Blair years. Here unionist voters march to a different drum. They don’t appreciate which side their bread’s buttered on.