The achievement by the Scottish National Party in May 2011 of an overall majority in the Scottish parliament, giving the First Minister, Alex Salmond, the power for the first time to hold a referendum on independence for Scotland, poses the greatest potential threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom since the second world war. Our national leaders will need unusual courage and imagination if they are to build a consensus for a new United Kingdom constitutional order as a viable democratic alternative to Scottish independence. Compared with this, the referendum on AV and the future of Mr Clegg were mere entertainments.
Reacting to the prospect of a referendum during the second half of Mr Salmond’s new five-year term, some UK media and political commentators stress that according to the opinion polls, only between a quarter and a third of Scots currently support independence, so there’s nothing to worry about. Others predict that Mr Salmond will have swung Scottish opinion behind independence by the time of the referendum, assuming that immediately after it Scotland will break away. Others again believe that SNP commitments to free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, freezing council taxes, and free university tuition for Scottish and EU students (except those from the rest of the UK) will soon prove unaffordable, and that the consequent economic and fiscal chaos will demonstrate the SNP’s incapacity to govern an independent Scotland. All three assumptions are questionable.
Whether the SNP can win over a majority for independence in three or four years’ time will depend largely on Mr Salmond’s political skills and powers of persuasion. it’s dangerous to underestimate him. He’s canny, charismatic and likeable, even to those who distrust him, his policies, and his risky exploitation of nationalistic passions. He’s attractively witty, optimistic and up-beat, probably the most effective politician in Britain today. He has been hampered hitherto by having to function as a minority government. Now he has an overall majority and can do whatever he likes, subject only to the need to woo and satisfy Scottish public opinion.
Mr Salmond is already seeking greater fiscal powers in the Scotland Bill now going through the Westminster parliament, including greater borrowing powers, increased scope for varying income tax, and power to reduce corporation tax. Certain funds are being transferred from Crown Lands to Scotland. The key issue is Scotland’s claim to the lion’s share of the income from North Sea oil, at least 80% of which is in waters which would belong to an independent Scotland. As long as oil prices remain sky-high, oil revenues would in principle be more than enough to pay for tuition fees, prescriptions, and the freezing of council tax. But in advance of independence no Westminster government is likely to hand over the bulk of its oil revenues just because Mr Salmond asks for them.
Mr Cameron will be in a dilemma. The more toughly he rejects Mr Salmond’s demands, the more unreasonable and oppressive the English will appear to Scottish public opinion, with potentially negative implications for the referendum. The SNP will have the perfect excuse for any fiscal or economic shortcomings. Conversely, if Mr Cameron accedes too readily to Mr Salmond’s more modest requests for greater fiscal autonomy, he’ll enable the SNP government to demonstrate that its generous social policies, contrasted with the coalition’s assaults on the welfare state south of the border, are affordable, and that the Scottish government is capable of running a viable independent Scotland. This could be a no-win situation for the Conservative-led coalition at Westminster. Mr Cameron has pledged to fight to keep the United Kingdom together “with every single fibre that I have”. Whatever he means by his ‘single fibre’, he may have his work cut out.
Even if there is a clear majority for independence in the referendum, that won’t be the end of the story. No British government is likely to ignore the will of a majority of Scots expressed in a referendum, but the terms of the divorce will have to be agreed by both sides, and their negotiation will provide ample scope for disagreement, delay and dispute. After a referendum vote for independence, the Westminster government will be tempted to impose harshly ungenerous terms on the settlement, hoping to impress on the Scots that independence would cost them dearly, that they might have made the wrong choice, and that they could still change their minds. So Mr Salmond may try to pin down the UK government on the terms it will offer for the divorce ahead of the referendum, presenting the UK Prime Minister with the same dilemma. If his terms are unduly harsh, anti-Westminster and anti-Tory sentiment in Scotland will harden and a consensus for independence will be encouraged; if his terms are too generous, the independence option will seem the more attractive.
A curious complication arises from Mr Salmond’s promise of a third referendum option on top of “Yes” or “No” to full independence: “devolution max”, or full fiscal autonomy for Scotland within a sovereign United Kingdom. This would complicate the interpretation of the result (what if each of the three options wins around a third of the votes cast? will voting be by AV or first past the post?). The Westminster government also then has a problem: should it offer to grant “devolution max” if the Scots vote for it in preference to independence, given that it would at least avert the disintegration of the United Kingdom, or should it state, ahead of the referendum, that this option is simply not on the table, forcing the Scots to choose between full independence and the status quo? That would represent a controversial gamble.
After a referendum vote for independence, the most difficult issue to be resolved would be the division between Scotland and Britain of government revenues, including especially revenues from oil, and debt. If the Scots had voted to break their ties with the rest of the UK, no Westminster government would see any need to be unnecessarily generous on this, and anyway English public opinion might preclude undue generosity. Other issues would require decision. Would the Westminster government be willing to sponsor an independent Scotland for membership of, for example, the UN and the EU, and if so on what terms? The EU in particular, smarting from the cost of bailing out some of its bankrupt smaller members, might well impose ferocious and unwelcome conditions of fiscal austerity and rectitude on a Scottish application for membership, noting the role of Scottish banks in the recent banking crisis. The notion, voiced in a recent letter to the press, that Scotland and the rest of the UK would each have to apply separately to join the UN or the EU following partition is fanciful: Russia automatically assumed the Soviet Union’s UN membership when all the other Soviet republics seceded, no question of a fresh application. UK membership of international bodies would not be affected by Scottish secession, even in the unlikely event – predicted in the same letter – of the United Kingdom being obliged to change its name after Scotland’s departure. Even more far-fetched is Jeremy Paxman’s question, in a recent BBC Newsnight programme, whether an independent Scotland would agree to share the UK’s permanent membership of the Security Council on an alternating basis. Such instant elevation of a new UN member (Scotland), and the concept of a shared seat on the Council, would both require amendments to the Charter which could be guaranteed to attract no UN support whatever.
Other controversial decisions would have to be made, both before and (if it goes for independence) after the referendum. Which Scots will be eligible to vote in the referendum? Many, but not all, Scots who are now British citizens living abroad are eligible to vote in UK general elections: will they vote in the referendum? What about Scots living in other parts of the UK, registered to vote in UK elections but mostly not in Scottish constituencies? What about non-Scots living temporarily or permanently in Scotland?
Decisions on these and other such questions could have an impact on the result and therefore on its acceptability as the legitimate voice of the Scottish people. Subsequently, what would be the citizenship status in an independent Scotland of the thousands of Scots living in England and elsewhere in the UK: would they become foreigners in what most would still see as their own country? What would happen to the Scottish regiments and other members of the British forces? Would an independent Scottish government require the closure of UK naval and military bases in Scotland, notwithstanding the economic disaster that such closure would inflict on local communities and the damage which the demand for closure would inflict on infant Scottish-British relations? Mr Salmond envisages an independent Scotland remaining under the Crown: would that require the consent of all the Queen’s governments around the world, including that of the UK? The SNP wish to maintain sterling as the currency of an independent Scotland, at any rate initially: how much say would Scotland have to be given in its management? Negotiation of answers to all such practical questions could well take years before a Scottish Independence Act could become law; in that time, who knows what changes in Scottish public opinion, indeed what changes in the régime at Holyrood, might take place under the impact of the problems that would emerge?
Meanwhile the referendum result could be affected by mounting anti-Scottish sentiment in England, stemming from envy of Scotland’s self-government under devolution (still indefensibly denied to England); from the largely unfounded conviction that Scotland’s generous social policies — free university tuition, those free prescriptions, etc. — are all at the expense of the English taxpayer; and even from a Little Englander supposition that England would be better off without the need to go on subsidising those pesky, demanding and rebellious Scots. The better the deal that Scotland seems likely to get from the divorce, the more rancid anti-Scottish prejudice in England may become.
What conclusions should we draw from this complex of problems and decisions? First, it’s no good blaming devolution. Devolution was devised (mainly by Scots) and is still seen in England as justified primarily as a way to head off growing demands for Scottish independence. It has so far failed in that purpose, not through any inherent defect in the concept of devolution, but because weak and short-sighted leadership at Westminster has failed to push devolution to its inevitable and logical conclusion, namely a full federal constitution for the whole of the United Kingdom, with full internal self-government for all four of the UK nations (yes, including a government and parliament for England), the government and parliament at Westminster becoming the federal organs, responsible principally for foreign affairs, foreign trade and defence. This is not the place to spell out in detail of how a fully federal system would work for the UK. We are half-way into it already, and the process is crying out to be completed. The adoption by a major political party of federalism as a long-term aim for the whole of the United Kingdom would radically transform the context in which a Scottish independence referendum would be held. What other positive alternative to the dismemberment of our country is there?
I have to declare an interest. I am English, but for me Scotland is as much a part of my homeland as Dorset or London. In the sense that JFK declared himself a Berliner, I am also a Scot. Britain without Scotland would be an unfamiliar and unattractive land. I could never regard my Scottish friends as foreigners, or think of visiting Edinburgh or Glasgow as going abroad. Scottish secession would be a kind of amputation. There has to be – there is – a better way. Come on in, Mr Miliband: take the plunge: the water’s lovely.