At the end of the movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, when it looks like our hero has the upper hand, he lets his adversary Moriarty get a stranglehold on him. This causes both men to fall to their doom in the Reichenbach waterfall.
That, more or less, is what David Cameron just tried to do to Ed Miliband and the opposition Labour Party.
To recap the plot: Scotland voted “No” to independence, but not by a massive margin. To help win the referendum, the British Conservatives, led by Cameron, had to promise major tax devolution powers, which they had opposed until the eve of the vote.
So instead of stability, we have constitutional chaos. Like a family in a soap opera, politicians are now bickering over issues that were previously containable.
The UK’s faultlines exist because one of its four nations –- Scotland –- has oil, a left-leaning electorate, but little real power. Meanwhile the biggest nation, England, has more power and is showing disturbing signs of veering towards nationalist, anti-European politics.
That the argument broke out over Scotland was only due to the timing. Now it has moved to this core issue: who does Westminster really represent?
All three main parties in the Westminster parliament –- Conservatives, Liberals and Labour –- opposed Scottish independence. But because the Conservatives have weak support in Scotland, they left it to Labour to run the campaign.
The campaign was a disaster. Labour, its activists partly bussed in from other parts of the UK, could not really hear what young, tech-savvy Scottish people were saying to them. They mobilized the over 65s with scare stories of lost pensions and economic doom, but still only managed to get a 55% no vote in the referendum.
To win, they had to promise further devolution of tax powers. Now, as a price for that, David Cameron wants Scottish MPs in the British parliament to be shorn of the right to vote on issues that only affect England.
To understand why this is emotive, think: healthcare, welfare, student tuition fees and criminal justice. All these areas of government are devolved to Scotland.
With 85% of the UK population living in England, English MPs have long asked –- why do the Scottish lawmakers get a say on English-only stuff?
So now there is big political pressure in England to make “English votes” a precondition for extra Scottish tax powers. You get more power in Scotland, but you lose the power to swing votes in Westminster, goes the argument.
This is a curveball for Labour leader Ed Miliband. Scotland is one of Labour’s heartlands, and barring 59 Scottish lawmakers from voting on the English law, healthcare and education system is a big deal. It fragments British sovereignty into the four separate nations of the UK and makes it more difficult for Labour to form a government.
Suppose Labour wins a national election, including Scotland, but then can’t get its programme for England through the English-only process in Westminster. If that happens, you have split power with the national parliament being in charge in name only. This is not some theoretical scenario: it is highly likely.
By proposing “English votes in Westminster”, Cameron gained the initiative -– but it’s not clear if he will win.
On another level, he is weakened. Cameron has been quietly vilified by English Tories for a) nearly losing Scotland and b) failing to make English-only votes a precondition for giving Scotland more powers.
And here’s the biggest challenge for Cameron. At the European elections in May, which people tend to use for protest votes, the United Kingdom Independence Party won with 27%. UKIP stands for leaving the EU, a crackdown on migration and numerous other right-wing, anti-globalisation policies.
Up to now, UKIP has been an insurgent party of the hard right. But this month one of Cameron’s MPs crossed over to UKIP, resigned from parliament, and is standing in a by-election he is tipped to win. So from October UKIP may have a member of parliament going in to the 2015 election, potentially splitting the Conservative vote.
Overshadowing the whole spat about Scotland and English parliamentary votes is Cameron’s plan to hold an in-or-out referendum on the EU in 2017. He wants to stay in Europe; many of his voters want to leave, as do many of his MPs and ministers.
This is why Cameron has emerged victorious, but weaker, in the wake of the Scottish vote. He has lost an MP to a party he described as “fruitcakes”; he nearly lost a territory containing 1/3 of Britain’s land and all its nuclear weapons. He had to offer in haste -– almost scrawled on the back of an envelope -– a level of tax devolution to Scotland he had previously opposed.
So like Sherlock Holmes, Cameron gets Miliband in a chokehold on the issue of English-only votes in parliament, and they plunge together into the foaming torrent to see who comes up alive. As in Sherlock Holmes, this is all done with decorum and politeness. But just as in the movie, it is life or death.
Ultimately, the people who will decide how weakened Cameron is are the electorate. Right now, many are simply confused, deluged in detail erupting from a question they were told was no big thing until it exploded two weeks ago.
If the British vote Cameron in for a second term, they get –- probably –- a fragmentation of the powers of the Westminster parliament and then a referendum on leaving Europe.
So maybe the best strategy for the Tories is just to pull their enemies over the balustrade, into the waterfall, where a constitutional crisis can drown the weakest and leave the strongest alive.
That’s what happened in Sherlock Holmes. Except in the movie, the hero had a secret oxygen supply. In British politics, it’s anyone’s guess who has one of those, or what it even looks like.Click here for reuse options!
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