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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 13:49 GMT
UK's future climbs political agenda
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Explaining why there were no fireworks to mark the 300th anniversary of the Union, Tony Blair told his first press conference of 2007 that it was argument, not fireworks, that mattered.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair has detailed the advantages of the Union
The way the current debate over the continuation of the union is going, that argument is likely to provide its own fireworks - most spectacularly with the possibility of a referendum in Scotland on independence.

Or, as the prime minister put it, the disaster of Scotland being "wrenched out" of the Union by Alex Salmond's nationalists.

The prime minister made a point of stressing the mutual benefits to both countries in terms of jobs and security provided by the Union.

What he did not touch on was the great Labour fear - one that Gordon Brown is also particularly eager to address - that dissatisfaction with the government will see the SNP winning power in Scotland and holding that referendum in the near future.

The prospect of the UK splitting would have big consequences all round, but especially for Labour, which has the votes of Scots to thank for the size of its recent majorities. Indeed, in 2005 more English people voted for the Conservatives than voted Labour.

Losing those votes as a result of Scottish independence would prove seriously damaging to Labour's future hopes of forming a government in England only.

West Lothian

Winning the Scottish Parliament elections is not, of course, any guarantee that the SNP would win a referendum on independence - as the prime minister pointed out.

Alex Salmond
Nationalists would hold referendum on independence
Current polling suggests the proposal still does not command a majority of votes in Scotland, although the SNP believes it is within their grasp.

But what the debate seems to be doing, as evidenced by the Newsnight poll, is boosting demands for an English parliament - irrespective of what happens in Scotland.

The famous West Lothian question - named after its originator Tam Dalyell's constituency - has been a regular point of discussion in Westminster.

But devolution has pushed it up the agenda to the point where it is a genuine matter of routine argument amongst MPs.

It asks why MPs sitting for Scottish seats should be allowed to continue to vote for legislation that will only affect England when those in English constituencies have been banned from voting on many Scottish laws because they are the sole responsibility of the Edinburgh assembly.

That situation has already led to an agreed reduction in the number of Scottish seats in Westminster, but there are demands for further reductions, a ban on Scottish MPs voting on English-only laws or the creation of a separate English parliament.

World stage

Opponents of all these suggestions fear that the effect would be damaging to the Union which would either eventually collapse or, at the very least, become a Union only in name.

Big Ben
Mr Blair warned English parliament would not work
That, they argue, would not only raise whole raft of practical issues between the two countries - for example, with separate currencies, as the prime minister suggested - but undermine the countries' standing in the world.

Former Tory Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd once famously described how the UK "punched above its weight" on the world stage. Supporters of the Union fear that would no longer be the case if the Kingdom was broken up.

It is also feared that the creation of an English parliament would fatally undermine the authority of the Westminster parliament and ultimately make it irrelevant.

Mr Blair said it would be "unworkable and unnecessary", particularly as 85% of the UK's voters were English.

What is likely to keep the whole subject even more in the spotlight in the next few years is the fact Tony Blair's likely successor Gordon Brown - and John Reid for that matter - are Members of Parliament for Scottish constituencies.

Differing opinions on the Anglo-Scottish Union

Union crucial to UK, says Blair
16 Jan 07 |  UK Politics
More poll questions than answers
16 Jan 07 |  Scotland
Blair rejects England-only votes
07 Feb 06 |  UK Politics


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