Today’s Sunday Times contains (paywall) an article about the UK Union by three decent, semi-retired politicians: Peter Hain, Menzies Campbell and Robert Salisbury. The chums are kicking off a new ‘Constitution Reform Group’ which will bring various experts together to save Scotland. It’s a bit blah, to be honest, but at the true core of the piece is a phrase the authors mean only as a throwaway line yet that actually, unintentionally, cuts to the heart of a profound problem for UK politics — one that remains virtually unrecognised outside Scotland. That line is: “the three main UK parties”.
Of course, there is some – ahem – difficulty with the notion of espousing the integrity of the union while refusing to recognise as a ‘main party’ one which has, in the sovereign parliament of that union, 56 members representing 5 million people. But the authors mean parties with a presence across the UK, of course. Really? The Greens have a single MP in England; UKIP do too, and with a hell of a lot more voters than the Lib Dems.
But in the end what counts in the UK parliamentary system are parliamentary seats, and a single seat isn’t deemed enough (by the authors, who go big on the ‘national’ status of the various bits of the UK) to get you ‘main party’ status in England or the UK. So why, in the context of the UK parliament, would a single seat in Scotland give you ‘main party’ status in Scotland, chaps? And if you don’t have ‘main party’ status in Scotland – or in Northern Ireland either – then you’re not a ‘main UK party’, are you? You’re a ‘main England and Wales’ party.
The simple truth is that in our sovereign legislature, which is the physical and legal embodiment of the union, there are no longer truly any truly ‘UK’ parties at all, let alone ‘main’ ones. The London commentariat, and more than a few semi-retired politicians, have yet to catch up with this literally astonishing reality, one which is as profound for England as it is for Scotland. The lack of any truly ‘UK’ parties should be coursing through public policy debate across the UK. You name it: defence, HS2, the NHS (supposedly ‘devolved’, in truth anything but). And yet, as the chums unintentionally flag, the language of UK coverage and indeed political dialogue itself remains that reality-denying ‘main UK party’ nonsense.