It is perhaps typical of the way the British handle constitutional affairs that we have taken the opportunity of the rejection of Scottish independence to plunge ourselves into another crisis.
Despite winning by a relatively handsome ten-point margin – the last few weeks of polling had me mentally preparing myself for a re-run of Quebec 1995 – you wouldn’t really guess that if you only had the responses of each side to go on. The SNP have held together and some elements of the nationalist movement are squaring up to continue the fight whilst the Unionists have turned on each other over constitutional reform.
Before this column resumes its normal three-nation service, it’s worth taking the time to look ahead and see what the potential consequences of the referendum could be for the future of Scottish and British politics.
Let’s do Scottish first. In last week’s column I argued, contrary to a lot of the predictions I’d found on Twitter (or some of the BBC’s pundits on the night), there could very likely be a disconnection between support for the SNP in normal elections and support for independence in the referendum. It seems some Scottish bloggers had their ears closer to the ground than Credit Suisse and the TV experts, as that thesis was largely borne out on the night.
With the exception of Dundee (where Labour are nonetheless the principal non-nationalist party), the areas which eventually broke for independence were the apparent Labour stronghold of Glasgow and a couple of its satellite councils. In contrast the local authorities which comprise the SNP heartlands – Perth and Kinross, Angus, Aberdeenshire, and Moray – returned some of the largest unionist majorities in Scotland.
Tellingly, those four councils used to be strong Tory areas – and that’s not the only place the impact of Toryism was felt. An SNP representative on the election night programme blamed “a strong residual Tory vote” for the disappointing separatist result in Stirling, and according to John McTernan an activist told him that: “There’s no stronger No than a bought council house.”
If we imagine that the referendum will have some substantial long-term effects on Scottish politics then this, coupled with the passage of fiscal responsibility to the Scottish Parliament, could provide a window of opportunity for the Scottish Conservatives.
Since our last strong showing in 1992 the SNP have assiduously cultivated the centre-right anti-Labour vote, but they have just spent the better part of two years sharing platforms with the likes of the Scottish Socialist Party and tilting hard at Labour’s base in the West of Scotland.
Thus not only can the Conservatives use the Union as a wedge issue in the upcoming elections – reminding tactical SNP voters that they really are hell-bent on breaking up the country – but if they’ve been on the ball the last couple of years they should have plenty of choice quotes from SNP figures being rather left wing indeed to show the middle-class and rural voters they’re trying to win back.
Of course, a lot of it comes down to how the SNP react. If Holyrood gets substantial tax powers before the next Scottish elections in 2016, as looks inevitable, then they will have hard choices to make about which of their two electorates they’re really after. They could simply try to bunker down on their current base, especially if they decide the constitutional issue really is settled for the medium-term.
If on the other hand they decide to try to capitalise on the separatist sentiments of Labour voters and pitch to the left – or better yet, if they try to run as part of a ‘Yes Alliance’ with the SSP and the Greens, or win a mandate for another referendum – then the way is open for a significant shift in the Scottish political landscape. That’s before you consider what might happen if the Liberal Democrats take a serious pounding.
That is a lot of ‘what ifs’, of course, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an informed commentator who doesn’t think that Ruth Davidson has had a very good campaign. As one Scottish Labour blogger put it:
“It may well prove in the long term the big winners in what was perceived as an existential struggle between Scottish Labour and the SNP will in fact turn out to be the Scottish Conservatives and (importantly) Unionists.”
If the potential impacts on Scottish politics seems a rather remote issue, the British impact is certainly much more immediate. It is all over this site and most of the newspapers, and managed to completely derail the first few days of the Labour conference. As mentioned at the start of this article, we’re in the midst of a serious bout of constitutional angst.
Now, without reading the minds of more than three million voters, it is impossible to know whether or not the now-infamous ‘Vow’ can be credited with saving the Union. There’s certainly evidence that it didn’t, with powers to Holyrood ranking far beneath economic concerns amongst those undecided voters who broke for No. But we’ll never be sure.
Despite that, the negative consequences of such a measure were readily apparent from the outset – in fact I explored them for this website, in March.
In that column I made the case against any devolution offer to the Scots before the referendum. My main arguments were these:
First, a cohesive offer on devolution would sunder the unionist coalition because it was almost impossible to believe that the three main parties would be able to negotiate between themselves a credible proposal before the vote.
Second, and more importantly, it would turn a referendum on the United Kingdom into a referendum on a particular deal. I spelled out the consequences of this:
“This means that any subsequent deviation from whatever we cobbled together before September will, the nationalists shall doubtless argue, invalidate the ‘No’ vote. That notion of settling the constitutional question for a generation, if not forever? Forget it. There will be a period of acute misery whilst we discover that three very different parties cannot, in fact, cleave to a constitutional settlement agreed in haste in the white heat of the campaign, and then separation will be right back on the agenda.”
Admittedly, I originally envisioned all the fuss being about what powers to give Scotland, rather than the West Lothian Question – a fairly substantive oversight on my part, not least for under-estimating Cameron’s boldness on the issue. Nonetheless, so far as I can tell, this is more or less what is happening at the moment.
Whilst the UK parties haggle between themselves the separatist movement – be it the SNP, the SSP, the ’45 Per Cent’ movement, or whomever else – has latched onto the idea that No voters were ‘hoodwinked’ by Westminster, and that any deviation from ‘The Vow’ will give them the right to call another referendum within a few years. Alex Salmond is even trailing, with spiteful irresponsibility, a non-referendum path to separation.
An unconditional majority endorsement of Great Britain itself would have been a much more substantial blow to the separatist cause, but at the last moment we denied Scots the opportunity to deliver one. We could live to rue the long-term consequences of that.
P.S. I was on the Nolan Show yesterday to discuss the impact of “more powers” and the English Question on the Northern Irish economy. You can listen here, I’m in the section that starts about half an hour in. I also offered a response to Ed Miliband’s conference speech to BBC West Midlands, which can be found here (35 minutes in).