In my previous article on the coming Scottish independence referendum I asked what a Yes vote might mean for the Prime Minister. Before moving on to look at other more optimistic aspects of the referendum I wish to put forward another question about a possible Yes vote: what would it mean for the general election of 2015?
A recent ICM poll showed that the nationalists had gained some ground (46 per cent Yes to 54 per cent No if don’t knows are excluded), enough to make them feel encouraged that their long-game strategy is working and to cause consternation and nervousness in the No camp. It remains to be seen if that poll was a hiccup or a trend but a Yes vote remains a possibility and the repercussions need to be considered by those that take their politics seriously.
There are many aspects to a Yes vote that the media and politicians focus on, not surprisingly these tend to be related to arguments that will sway the public such as currency arrangements, pensions, assets and liabilities, border controls and immigration, and so on.
There is however an issue that is crucial for the future of the United Kingdom and that is how shall negotiations be carried out for any possible division of the UK, especially as there is almost certainly going to be a general election before they are concluded. Even at its most optimistic the SNP has stated that it believes negotiations will be finalised within eighteen months of the referendum, that is by March 2016. That date is intentional because it falls before the planned elections for the Scottish Parliament at the end of April and Alex Salmond wishes to go into that campaign with everything tied up.
It is also obvious to anyone sitting back and thinking about it for a minute or two that the general election that will take place in June 2015 could change the UK government in a number of ways; replacing it with a Conservative, Labour or new version of a Coalition government. So, midstream, there is a real possibility that the team conducting the negotiations with the Scottish Government will change – even if a cross-party agreement is reached at Westminster to try and make the UK negotiating team multi-party.
In 2015 some MPs might lose their seats and a new government might wish to repudiate and revisit arrangements already agreed to (for legislation approving any arrangements is likely to be at the end of the process, not piecemeal stage by stage, and could anyhow be repealed.)
One has to ask what role will existing Scottish members at Westminster play in the negotiations for a country that is seeking to leave the parliament they have been elected to? Will they not be under a conflict of interest in that the UK government and its negotiating team will be looking to obtain the optimal deal representing the best interests of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – how should they seek to influence that in any debates and votes? Should they stay silent, should they stay out of the lobby? There will certainly be those that say they should. But it’s not that simple.
Imagine wakening up on the morning after a general election to find that there is to be a new government, a Labour government with Ed Miliband as prime minister but that it is there only because the Scottish divisions have been contested and there are sufficient Labour members elected to Westminster to give Ed Miliband a working majority.
The same could be possible for a Labour-Liberal democrat coalition involving Lib Dem members from Scotland.
This is not fanciful. There are no provisions for the Scottish constituencies to be taken out of the general election and there is no reason to believe that the Labour Party would wish to see this happen in advance of June 2015.
There is also no reason to believe that the SNP would be agreeable to this either for they might believe it important that Scotland has at least a voice at Westminster throughout the period of the negotiations, even if they choose not to vote on any proposals (although they may believe they should vote in support of them).
We could easily see a situation where England or even England and Wales has voted for a Conservative majority but will be denied this by the number of Labour (and SNP) MPs coming from Scotland.
The media would be apoplectic with rage, the Daily Mail would be leading the charge of injustice with other papers not far behind them
There would be a constitutional crisis the like of which has never been seen.
Parties can be expected to take different views on aspects of the negotiations and the SNP will know this – it will take a view on which government will be more amenable to its negotiating position and seek to influence that outcome in any legitimate way it can. Great damage can be done to Anglo-Scottish relations and general relations within the UK simply by working to the rules.
There are some 700,000 Scots in the rest of the UK that have not been given a vote in the referendum and will see their identity and their place within the UK open to change. They will undoubtedly feel nervous if the negotiations turn sour, as they might. Families could be ripped apart, old friendships torn asunder through disagreement.
The idea that the negotiations will retain a social union of Britishness is to me completely without foundation – I expect new grievances to surface and many of them will be from England towards Scotland, justified or not. We should expect negotiations to become difficult, not be all sweetness and light.
With no plans (yet) for Scotland to become a republic, the sovereign will have to act knowing she will be monarch of both Scotland and the remaining United Kingdom with responsibilities to both. There is a risk again of conflicts of interest arising. The implications for constitutional problems in this regard must also be investigated.
In the event of a Conservative defeat at the hands of Ed Miliband – with or without the influence of Scottish MPs – there will also be repercussions in the Conservative Party itself with the leadership most certainly contested. Such a process is again likely to feed into the maelstrom surrounding the negotiations and for a while make any worthwhile cross-party agreement on how to approach the process impossible.
For the Liberal Democrats, who can be expected to do reasonably well in Scotland (certainly losing East Dunbartonshire, but possibly only one or two others) they will be significantly weakened with as many as a third of their parliamentary party (based on Iain Dale’s calculations this week) disappearing after independence.
In short once independence is achieved any existing Labour government or Labour-Lib Dem coalition would most likely be forced to call a fresh general election with immediate effect. It could not carry on without parliamentary support and the legitimacy of Scottish MPs must surely fall after independence follows.
These then are just some of the possibilities to consider and I am sure there are many more, the consequences for most of them are grave.
British politics will be turned upside down by a Yes vote. Many things will change because many things must change. While I do not believe it will come to that, British political leaders should at least be considering these points while fighting the good fight, for David Cameron and Grant Shapps to find themselves unprepared would be unforgivable.