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Britain's 'Constitutional Question' Still Vexes

Blair and Major will have to take into account the nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales

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As in 1992, the upcoming British general election on May 1 will focus on economic problems in the face of increased Conservative skepticism over Europe. After 18 years of Tory rule, Britain seems ready for a change. Labour leads by wide margins in most opinion polls.

With Prime Minister John Major facing dissension in his own ranks over greater links with the European Union (EU), as well as increased social fragmentation over education and health policies, Tony Blair is set to become Britain's first Labour premier since James Callaghan lost power in 1979.

Mr. Callaghan's inept handling of a series of union work stoppages that year contributed to what, for lack of a better description, became known as Labour's "permanent exile." It also ushered in the resolute politics of Margaret Thatcher.

One area, however, that may return to vex both Labourites and Conservatives this year is the proverbial "constitutional question." Unlike the United States, Britain has no written constitution. Hence it does not have a legal or political document that addresses the important issues of territorial sovereignty, juridical authority, or regional autonomy. The government has legislation designed to resolve political questions of territoriality. But calls for greater regional and subnational independence in this "United Kingdom" still abound.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales will again be a major focus of elections in those two regions of the UK. Devolution is the return of power to localized or decentralized political units. Because Britain's government is a unitary form of government, unlike the federal system in the United States, the central government in London (i.e. the House of Commons) makes all decisions concerning local government. Parliament enjoys a power similar to that of American states in relation to cities and counties. It can create or abolish local government through its legal control of the territory and politics throughout the UK.


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