Scotland may vote Yes. Or it may vote No by a substantial majority (say 60/40). But the majority of recent polls have shown a narrow No lead.
So let me temporarily suspend the rule that a poll is a snapshot and not a forecast – because the consequences of a close No are so intriguing as to make speculation irresistible.
Those of a Yes vote are some ways imponderable. Those of a decisive No vote are more predictable: the push for a new constitutional settlement will lose momentum.
Those of a marginal No hover somewhere between the two. They are cloudy – but not completely obscure. Let us turn to them.
A narrow No would be read, correctly, as showing that the unbalanced Blair/Brown devolution settlement – which has been unjust to all parts of the United Kingdom, not least England – is dead. Scotland would be judged to have rejected not only independence but also the status quo, and a majority of Scottish voters to back more devolution for the country.
Like the other main party leaders, David Cameron has endorsed Gordon Brown’s offer of a form of devo-plus for Scotland – in very short order. According to George Osborne, this will come “within days” of a No vote, although the Chancellor was referring to a constitutional convention apparently consisting of the those main parties rather than an actual proposal.
The only fair outcome of such a convention, and the greater devolution for Scotland that would flow from it, would be an end to MPs from Scotland voting on non-Scottish Parliamentary business in their present number. That number could be slashed back, as a rough quid-pro-quo for this more extensive devolution. Or they could be barred from voting on non-Scottish business altogether.
On balance, this site favours the latter solution – that’s to say, devo-max for all the home nations, as our manifesto puts it. This federal-type solution is not without its difficulties. Controversial decisions would have to be taken about what exactly constitutes non-Scottish business – perhaps by the Speaker, which gives pause for thought.
Furthermore, it would be certain that, at some point in the electoral future, the UK would return a Labour Government (which would duly have charge of foreign affairs and defence) and England would return a Conservative one (which would control most tax, public services, and so on). This would be problematic. But the federal-shaped solution is now the least bad practicable option.
The Prime Minister would thus have three main Parliamentary constituencies to square:
- Labour, which is terrified witless by the prospect of more devolution for Scotland – because of the inevitable knock-on effects for England. An end to MPs from Scotland voting on non-Scottish Parliamentary business (at least in their present number) would eliminate Labour’s present electoral advantage (caused by the distribution of the vote) at a stroke – and probably reverse it. Hence Ed Miliband’s hysterical article in today’s Observer calling for more devolution within England. The prospect of a semi-permanent Tory majority in England has transformed this instinctive centralist into a newly-born localist! One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.
- The Liberal Democrats. On paper, they are all for a federal solution. In practice, they will be looking to next May. For many in the party, that means not putting too great a distance between themselves and Labour. In Parliament, the coalition ties that bind them to the Conservatives are already loosening: consider their recent vote against spare room subsidy measures which they had previously supported. For Cameron, they would remain a dodgy ally.
- The Conservatives. Like this site, Tory MPs have long believed that the Blair/Brown devolution was unjust to England. (A ConservativeHome survey of Tory candidates before the last election found that these were “barely unionist”.) The prospect of more devolution for Scotland has re-ignited the torch that many carry for more devolution for England – as has the prospect on electoral pressure on the matter from UKIP. They would demand it as part of any settlement. At the least, Cameron would have to agree to a big cut in the present number of Scotland’s MPs to get any deal past his Parliamentary Party. At most, he would have to grant England devo-max. John Redwood is already on the case. Others will follow his lead.
In the event of a close No vote, the constitutional choice that Cameron will face is essentially one between Labour, perhaps supported tby the Liberal Democrats, and his own Party. It’s a no-brainer – not least because its confidence in him has been further eroded by his handling of the referendum.
But it’s also a no-brainer because what would be right for his Party would also be right for the country – and unavoidable, in any event. There would be no going back to the pre-1997 constitutional settlement. There would be no staying with the discredited Blair/Brown devolution halfway house.
The federal solution, with the four parts of the UK each having more devolution, would loom. Its peoples would require a big say: there’s no way a new settlement could simply be cobbled together simply by the Westminster elites.
The Lords would have to be re-thought. It is hard to see how the new deal could not be formalised in a written constitution.