Canadian-style compromises to keep U.K. united: Don Pittis

While a sweep by the Scottish Nationalist Party has led to a pronounced division in United Kingdom politics, two Canadian experts say it does not mean a sudden end to the British union -- just a system of messy compromises. A bit like Canada.

British union faces messy divorce or messy compromises to resolve economic conflicts

20-year-old Mhairi Black, the youngest member of Parliament elected since the 17th century, came in as part of a Scottish National Party (SNP) sweep of Scotland. Now, despite a majority government, British Prime Minister David Cameron must pick his policies to keep the kingdom united. (The Associated Press)

As the British Conservative majority finally began to gel early Friday morning, one Tory commentator speaking on the BBC crowed that re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron now had a free hand to enact his policies of tax cuts and austerity.

Other commentators, watching the overwhelming win by the SNP in Scotland, dusted their hands and declared an end to the union between Scotland and England.

But according to two Canadian constitutional experts, one in Canada and one in Scotland, both of those conclusions are wrong. And they say the Canadian example, where a push for Quebec's separation has rumbled on for about five decades while it remains part of Canada, helps to prove their point.

According to John McGarry, a professor at Kingston's Queen's University, the political differences between Scotland and England are in many ways a matter of economics.

Economic divide

"The Scots have a different view of the welfare state," McGarry told me as the British seat count began to stabilize on Friday. "The Scots have their pensions, their free buses, their free tuition and prescriptions that the English don't have."

"There will be a fight," he said, "But it will be a fight between the left and the right as much as a fight between the Scots and the English."

In the final days of the election, in an effort to secure his vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned against a nefarious alliance between the Labour Party and the Scottish Nationalists run by separatists who don't want Britain to exist

"If in that polling booth, you decide to vote UKIP, you decide to vote Lib Dem, or you decide to go Labour, we end up with Ed Miliband supported by the SNP in Parliament as our prime minister," said Cameron two days before the vote.

But now that Cameron has won the prize, his promises of renewed austerity and a national referendum on membership in the European Union risk further alienating the Scots. 

Serious cracks

Canadian Michael Keating, who lives in Scotland, is director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change. Keating says that despite SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's campaign against austerity, the only place where serious cracks could appear between Scotland and England is the vote on Europe.

Keating, whose most recent book was Small Nations in a Big World, says Cameron can't wriggle out of his commitment to hold a European referendum. And while Cameron himself may be pro-Europe, his party is bitterly divided.

"In a referendum, there's the possibility that he could lose control and England could vote to come out [of Europe] and Scotland would almost certainly vote to stay in," says Keating. He says that would likely force a second referendum on Scottish separation, something almost no one wants.

Keating and McGarry agree that creating a federal system in Britain would be almost impossible because of the disparity in size between the members of any federation.

Scotland has five million people while Wales has about three million. England's population is nearly 60 million. Federations are supposed to symmetrical, as in the United States, where each state has equal rights and powers. But that parallel structure doesn't work when Westminster continues to be the central (in other words, federal) government, while also acting as the government representing the English portion of the federation.

Muddling through

What's left is a series of compromises. One plan would be to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on issues that only affect England, though Keating says in practice, deciding which issues are England-only is not as easy as you might think. Another compromise would be to allow Scotland to collect its own revenue and control its own spending. 

And he says, just like in the Canadian example, as long as they can avoid crises, there is no reason for Scotland to break apart.

"You can muddle through indefinitely," says Keating, using the Canadian example. Instead of a brittle crack, "There is a gradual drifting apart," he says.

McGarry agrees, saying, just like in the Canadian example, the solution for Scotland is neither a clean separation or perfect togetherness. 

"No prime minister wants to see a significant part of his country leave," says McGarry. "What you're going to see is more of what you've got now. A sort of messy, asymmetrical devolution."


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.