Currently Scotland seems likely to reject independence in the referendum on 18 September. But there are many undecided voters, and pundits predict a closer result than opinion polls suggest. A narrow majority for independence remains possible, and not only the Coalition but also Labour needs to plan ahead in case it happens.
A Scottish vote to secede from the UK would represent the greatest moment of identifiable failure by an incumbent UK government since Chamberlain resigned in 1940 over Narvik. The Tory-led coalition campaigned, however half-heartedly, against Scottish secession; a vote for independence will be the direct result of the government’s failure to offer Scotland a fairer and more democratic alternative to independence. The vague offer by all three mainstream UK parties of further devolved taxing powers if Scotland votes No will have proved hopelessly inadequate if the independence cause succeeds — and it will surely prove to have been inadequate even if the Scots vote No. Admittedly Labour has been just as timid and unimaginative as the Tories in its reluctance to devise an irresistible alternative to independence: but when there’s a national disaster, it’s clearly the government in office that must be held responsible for the failure, not an opposition party that lacked the power to avert it.
There’s more. A Scottish vote for independence would mark the start of a long, intricate and probably stormy negotiation between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) on the terms of Scottish secession, which would need to be settled before Scotland could become independent. Whatever the composition of the rUK’s negotiating team, it would be bound to be led by the UK government of the day. But a Tory-led coalition which had just failed in its responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the United Kingdom would be in no position, morally or politically, to lead the negotiations. Huge decisions would have to be taken on rUK objectives in the negotiations and the extent to which it could properly compromise over such matters as currency, the division of oil revenues, the national debt, and assets such as naval and military facilities in Scotland, all matters on which the whole British people would be entitled to an opinion. Only a newly elected government with a popular mandate for its negotiating objectives could properly take those decisions. In the febrile and destabilising political atmosphere in mid-September that would follow a Yes vote in the referendum, a defeated and discredited coalition government could not possibly embark on a negotiation with Scotland that would be bound to continue for years. Nor could Britain exist in limbo for eight long months, with no start to the independence negotiations, until the UK general election currently scheduled for May 2015. The economy of both Scotland and rUK would be crippled by such prolonged uncertainty.
Thus Labour would have a clear duty, as soon as the vote for independence was declared, to call for the immediate resignation of the coalition government, followed by a general election well before the end of the year, so that the independence negotiations could begin soon afterwards, led on the rUK side by a newly elected government with a clear mandate legitimating its objectives in the negotiations.
It follows that Labour needs now, before the referendum, to set out a policy for Scotland and the rest of the UK more far-reaching, positive and constructive than anything so far envisaged by the Conservatives. This should embrace Britain’s future either in the event of Scottish independence or in the aftermath of Scottish rejection of independence, including (a) full internal self-government for Scotland after a No victory and (b) whatever the result of the referendum, the promise of a post-referendum Constitutional Convention to consider Britain’s constitutional future either with or without Scotland. The Convention should be tasked to include in its deliberations the implications of eventual full internal self-government for England as well as for Wales and Northern Ireland, leading over the long term to a federal system for the UK (as already advocated by the Liberal Democrats). Such a radical and progressive programme, set out before 18 September, might stand a chance of saving the country from dismemberment and put Labour on the path to success in the next general election, whether that is held this autumn or in May 2015. Objections from the Scottish Labour Party should not be allowed to stand in its way: too much is at stake.
What happens if rUK-Scottish independence negotiations break down in failure to agree on key issues is another matter. I offer some thoughts on that in a letter in today’s Guardian and in a blog post elsewhere.