UK Politics

Old certainties crumble as Westminster cracks up

House of Commons Image copyright PA

Everything looks the same.

The tower tourists call Big Ben glows in the early autumn sunshine. The pavements around Parliament heave with visitors snapping pictures of the mighty clock. From Seoul to Spain it's seen as the symbol of British government. Stable, solid, timeless.

As Orwell described England in 1941.... "it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature."

But nothing is the same.

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Image caption Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron risk losing the most if the 'Yes' vote wins

Westminster's politicians are dazed and disorientated. They feel politics as they know it is cracking up. The main parties are scrambling to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom.

The sleepy assumption that separation would never happen has vanished. If it happens, Westminster will soon lose its 59 Scottish MPs.

The political damage to David Cameron and Ed Miliband would be immense.

If Scotland stays, a shift of new powers from London to Edinburgh is promised. The rest of Britain will be rewired too. It seems inevitable there will be a devolution of power within England. The remaining Scottish MPs in Westminster would surely lose their right to vote on English matters. The so-called West Lothian Question would need to be answered. The constitutional obsessions of political scientists are no longer niche. They're pressing and urgent.

The crack up has been brewing for several years. Not just the decades' long gestation of Scottish separatism. But in the fading confidence of Westminster's politicians.

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Image caption Nigel Farage's condemnation of the political establishment echoes the separatist message

The expenses scandal of 2009 was memorable not just for the ludicrous receipt-free claims and care-free sense of entitlement to public money. It was memorable too for the raw fury it unleashed among voters.

The public's trust in politicians had been falling for years. For many voters the scandal exposed a vacuity at the heart of British politics and sealed their contempt for politicians.

When UKIP's leader Nigel Farage condemns the Westminster political establishment he echoes a recruiting message of the Yes campaign in Scotland.

There are big differences between the SNP, the Yes movement and UKIP. But both parties are nationalist and both promise a rejection of politics as usual. They're tapping a deep disillusionment with Westminster politics. And they're both posing an electoral nightmare for the three main parties whose memberships have been in sharp decline for years. Together they have fewer members than the RSPB.

As Labour is discovering in Scotland - it isn't possible to mobilise huge blocks of supporters if the party members and foot-soldiers aren't there anymore.

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Image caption Could this be the end of business as usual?

It's not an original observation that Westminster politics has a so-called "professional political class" at its heart - people who were familiar with the ways of Westminster long before they were elected. Voters have sussed this out. Not dogmatic or interested enough to join a political party themselves they find the entrances to politics blocked.

Shrinking political parties remain the gateways to council seats and the green benches. Politicians claim the media plays its part in sowing disillusionment with the difficult business of doing politics.

The referendum has electrified politics in Scotland and prompted profound questions in Westminster.

Is the rise of English nationalism now inevitable or will greater regional devolution extinguish the UKIP surge?

Are we seeing a nationalist reaction to the forces of globalisation? Can political parties as we've known them survive?

How should we be governed and where should power lie? While the main parties panic about Scotland they're also looking anxiously at the future. Everything looks the same but Westminster politics will never be the same again.