18 April 2017

Today’s news that the Prime Minister will seek an early general election is just the latest twist in the ever-entertaining soap opera of contemporary British politics. Akash Paun wonders what impact this will have in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Most reactions to Theresa May’s surprise announcement focus on the prospects of a Tory landslide, a Labour wipeout and a Liberal Democrat resurgence. There is also an assumption that the election will be fought almost entirely on the issue of Brexit. This may well be true, but we should avoid an Anglo-centric perspective that treats the election as a simple two (or two-and-a-half) party battle. The dynamics of this election will in fact play out differently in each part of the UK.

Scotland

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has described today’s announcement as “a huge political miscalculation” by the Prime Minister. The Scottish National Party (SNP) will campaign hard on Scotland’s right to hold another independence referendum to enable it to forge its own path within Europe. The SNP won 56 of 59 Scottish seats in 2017 and will harbour hopes of a clean sweep in June, which would surely strengthen the First Minister’s hand in negotiations with the Prime Minister, who has consistently argued that “now is not the time” for indyref2.

But the Scottish Government may also regard the early poll as a distraction. It already claims a clear mandate for indyref2 from its 2016 Scottish Parliament victory: Holyrood rather than Westminster is after all regarded as the core representative institution of the Scottish people. And since it starts from such a high base, the SNP also faces the possibility of losing seats, even while remaining comfortably the largest party. This may enable the Conservatives, who have an opportunity to consolidate their newfound status as Scotland’s second party, to claim that the tide has turned against the nationalist cause. So there are risks as well as opportunities for Nicola Sturgeon. What is certain is that the campaign will keep wide open the bitter divides in Scottish politics.

Northern Ireland

The looming election also has unpredictable implications for Northern Ireland, still without a functioning government more than a month after its own early election. The two former coalition partners in Belfast – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin – remain opposed on Brexit among other issues, and progress towards a resumption of power-sharing seems even less likely as the parties re-enter the electoral fray.

Sinn Féin’s leader in the north, Michelle O’Neill, has already described the election as "an opportunity for voters to oppose Brexit and reject Tory cuts and austerity". Sinn Féin will hope to top the poll for the first time, which the party narrowly failed to do last month. That outcome will strengthen its case that Northern Ireland should be granted a “special status” that keeps open the Irish border and maintains full Single Market membership, which is also seen as a potential stepping stone towards reunification with the south. Pro-Brexit DUP leader Arlene Foster has meanwhile described the election as “providing the people of Northern Ireland with the opportunity to vote for the union”. 

Wales

In Wales, which like England but unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for Brexit, the Conservatives will hope to build upon recent gains that saw them take 11 of 40 Welsh seats in 2015. The travails of UKIP since last year offer a pool of voters that may aid them in this cause. On the other side of the Brexit faultline, the Welsh Labour Government has found common cause with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru on a soft Brexit vision that would prioritise Single Market access and on further constitutional reform that would entrench Welsh devolution along federal lines.

Metro-mayors

A final overlooked issue is that of the local and mayoral elections on 4 May, the day after Parliament will be dissolved. Elections to important new metro-mayor posts in Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and elsewhere now risk being wholly overshadowed by the start of the general election campaign.

England represents 85% of the UK population, so the election will naturally be dominated by English issues. Big questions include whether Theresa May can advance further into Labour’s Brexit-voting northern heartlands, and whether the Liberal Democrats can win back its former strongholds in the south west and elsewhere. But this election also has major implications for devolution and the Union, which has already been rocked by the aftershocks of Brexit. And whatever else one can say about it, the British political soap opera continues to offer compelling viewing.

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