The results of the referendum were remarkable. For the No vote to triumph over the Yes vote by a margin of more than two to one was a staggering success for the ‘No to AV’ campaign. Survey data revealed that the more AV was explained to electors, the more they disliked it.
Not only was the referendum result remarkable but so too was the outcome of the elections to the Scottish parliament. Scottish devolution was enacted by a Labour Government essentially to take the wind out of the sails of the Scottish National Party (its principal opponent in Scotland) and an electoral system developed to ensure that the SNP stood no chance of gaining power. Clearly, things have not worked out as intended. The SNP has run rings around Labour and achieved a remarkable victory.
The results of the referendum and the Scottish elections suggest that the UK Government needs to refocus its interest in constitutional affairs. The referendum result indicates that the electorate have no great interest in constitutional reform. The coalition agreement is based on the premise that our political system is broken. It is not clear that electors believe that it is. I have argued that there is indeed a crisis of confidence, but it is not a crisis of confidence in the political system, it is a crisis of confidence in politicians. Trying to change the system is not going to resolve anything when it is the people advocating the change that constitute the problem.
Given that, there is little point in the Government pursuing proposals to replace the House of Lords with a chamber of elected politicians. There is no clear popular appetite for change and, indeed, the referendum has created a powerful argument against proceeding with the Government’s proposed Bill. One can hardly hold a referendum to determine whether there should be some adjustment to the method of electing the members of one chamber, but not hold a referendum to determine the actual method of electing the members of the other. The appetite for holding such a referendum is, I suspect, rather low, if not non existent, on the part of Government.
In any event, pursuing a measure to elect the second chamber would not only be time consuming and illogical, given the outcome of the referendum on AV, it would also be a massive distraction in relation to what should now be occupying the Goverment’s attention and that is the preservation of the Union. There is no great appetite for independence on the part of Scots, but Alex Salmond will exploit the new situation to generate conflict with the Westminster Government. The Government needs to have a clear strategy as to how to handle the new situation. What happens in Scotland has implications for the whole of the United Kingdom. The UK Government needs to devote its time and energies to enhancing the ties that bind the different parts of the Union.