UK politics at a crossroads: how to navigate in a sea of uncertainty?

By Andrew Hammond

It is now a week since the landmark Scottish referendum, and the ramifications continue to ripple out.  In future years, the vote may well be looked back upon as a hugely significant political and constitutional moment in UK history.  

Indeed, some assert that the referendum, and its ramifications for the rest of the United Kingdom could prove to be one of (if not the) biggest change to the political establishment since 1945 and maybe since 1918.

Reassuring as the ‘no’ vote might be for many, it therefore has the potential to be transformational, politically, leading to a major new constitutional settlement in what is one of the world’s longest and most successful unions.  Many politicians, including the prime minister, have already indicated that there is a clear need for significant change in what is a heavily centralised state.

ReputationInc hosted a seminar on Friday 19th, the day after the Scottish vote which looked at the high level of political risk and opportunity currently in the United Kingdom.  This uncertainty is emanating not just from the aftershocks of the Scotland referendum, but also from the 2015 UK General Election, and the possibility of an ‘in-out’ EU referendum in coming years.

The seminar featured almost 30 senior communicators from a wide range of organisations, including charities, corporates and public sector bodies.  And it featured a panel that included Ian Wright, former Head of Global Corporate Affairs for Diageo, and Edward Bickham, former Head of Global External Affairs for Anglo American.  

It was asserted by panellists and the audience at the seminar that, while the United Kingdom remains intact, its territorial integrity is not assured beyond the short-term.  A second referendum in Scotland cannot be ruled out in the next 10-20 years, despite what Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said before the vote.

The timetable for getting the new Scotland Bill before the May 2015 election is very ambitious indeed time-wise.  Especially given the uncertainty and tension in virtually every political party on this issue, the bill’s passage into law cannot be taken for granted in this Parliament.

It is not yet clear what factors helped ‘save’ the union in the last few weeks of the campaign, nor whether the so-called ‘fear factor’ waged by the No campaign was effective.  Research needs to be done into this and it will have important implications for any EU ‘in-or-out’ vote that is held by in coming years.

With political uncertainty at one of the highest levels, right now, for many years, the seminar considered the wide range of risks and also opportunities in play, and also the best way to plan ahead in what is a highly unpredictable environment. 

Amongst the views expressed by panellists and the audience included the importance of very quickly assessing the implications of the Scotland vote, and thinking through very carefully what key potential future scenarios could mean.  During the seminar, a range of political risk and opportunity intelligence/radar tools where highlighted, along with foresight and scenario planning, plus capability programmes to enhance constructive engagement in the political process. 

Taken overall, Scotland’s ‘no’ vote could herald a period of major political change for the United Kingdom in coming years.  We will not just see more devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also England too.  While significant uncertainty about the details will remain for many months, the end result will be a more decentralised political union in which there will be significantly greater country-level policy innovation and competition.

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