Today’s Sunday Times splash is headed: “Tories fear Scots will break away” (£). It claims that both Boris Johnson and Lynton Crosby are concerned about the state of the pro-Union campaign, and believe that Scotland may vote Yes next September. We publish our own report from ConservativeHome’s edition of January 1 2023, which has mysteriously become available…
Michael Gove delivered the message he had been sent to broadcast. “As a Scot who lives in England, I naturally see both perspectives,” he told Andrew Marr. “But the fact is that the Scottish people have made a decision, and consequences inevitably flow from it. A UK general election is due to place within a year. But by the time the next one is due, 2020, Scotland will be independent. It follows that we cannot elect MPs to the United Kingdom Parliament who will by that date be citizens of a foreign country. I believe that the SNP agrees. And so, I think, do our Coalition partners.” Pressed on whether or not the election might be postponed were agreement on the point not reached, the Education Secretary said that he could not “exclude that possibility”.
The Education Secretary’s extraordinary suggestion that the Commons elected in 2010 might run for longer than five years – the Second World War was the last event to provoke a remotely comparable delay – was one of the earliest indicators of the constitutional crisis exploded by Scotland’s unexpected decision to vote for independence by the narrow but clear margin of 52 to 48 per cent. A year before the poll, such a verdict had seemed almost unimaginable. Scots were set to vote with their heads, not their hearts – and all Alex Salmond’s inventive ploys were unable to persuade them that this meant quitting the Union. The key swing voters were Labour ones and women in the central belt. The latter were wary of independence and the former hostile to the SNP. Scotland was poised to vote No.
What turned it round? Opinions differ. Some cite the extraordinary press conference of two days before the poll, in which Gordon Brown, the guest star of the event, departed from his script to savage Alistair Darling – the flummoxed Chairman of proceedings – for “destroying my Government and endangering the planet”. The former Prime Minister was eventually dragged from the podium by a team of SWAT professionals and medical orderlies. Others point more plausibly to the even more notorious incident at the Commonwealth Games only a few weeks earlier, in which a fist fight broke out between the Scottish and English rugby sevens teams: two Scottish players and seven English ones were rushed to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
Salmond’s visit to the injured Scottish players, after which he declared them simultaneously to be “martyrs in the tradition of William Wallace to English aggression” and “winners of the greatest Scottish victory since Bannockburn”, was widely mocked as preposterous. But in Scotland, a backlash against Sassenach sneering at the First Minister and a wave of celebration over Scotland’s success at the games (15 gold medals in all) sparked a mood of nationalist fervour. On referendum day, Scots voted with their hearts – and to the First Minister’s gut appeal, the dry case of the No campaign had no answer. What swung the result was the turnout. Scottish women were still unmoved by the SNP’s “retail offer” on childcare. Labour voters were still unpersuaded by Salmond.
But, in the final event, enough of them abstained to hand the Yes campaign the victory. (The turnout in some Labour heartland areas fell as low as 47 per cent, compared to an average of 75 per cent.) For the best part of a day, David Cameron – after a meeting in Buckingham Palace – tried to hold the line. “This is an unbearably sad day for the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said outside Downing Street on the Friday evening, “as well as for those Scottish voters – almost half of them – who voted to stay within it. However, the verdict of the Scottish people must be honoured, and we will soon consider how it will be enacted – in a continuing spirit of neighbourly affection which, we can be sure, will endure and thrive. Today, however, must be a day for greeting Scotland’s decision with sorrow, yes, but also with respect.”
The Prime Minister’s attempt to follow the Palace’s wishes, and hold the instincts of much of his Party in check, was never likely to last very long. Anyone could do the arithmetic. Remove Scotland’s MPs from the Commons, and number of MPs would be as follows: Conservative, 302; Labour, 216; Liberal Democrats; 45; others, 28 – a Tory majority of 23. There was no question of doing so before 2015: after all, Scotland would not become an independent country until the March of the following year. But while the removal of its MPs would neither eliminate the electoral disadvantage of the Conservatives in England nor guarantee a Tory Government after 2015, it was clearly in the Conservative interest for Scotland’s MPs to be removed from Westminster as soon as possible.
At much the same time as Cameron was making his statement, Tory MPs were arguing on Twitter – correctly – that it would be wrong for Scotland to be represented at Westminster after separation. For example, Harriet Baldwin – a Parliamentary champion of English votes for English laws – tweeted: “MPs for Scotland must leave the Commons when independence happens – at the very latest”. By early Saturday, the lobby was ringing round Conservative MPs to firm up their stories of revolt. At a mid-day meeting in Downing Street, Cameron and George Osborne made their decision. Nick Clegg might not like it. But the Tory manifesto for the 2015 election would contain a commitment to remove Scotland’s MPs from the Commons “by the date on which Scotland becomes an independent country.”
Gove was duly rushed out on Marr to make the announcement. Clegg, having been tipped off personally by Cameron, moved quickly to protect the Liberal Democrats’ position – in other words, to shield their eleven Scottish MPs from Labour claims that his Party had formally joined the Conservatives as an anti-Scottish Party. “There must be no precipitate rush to break up the Union, ” he said in a carefully-worded statement. But the leader in the political firing line was not so much Clegg as Ed Miliband. The Labour leader was faced with the prospect of losing 50 or so MPs from the Commons after 2015. Any Government that he led then could thus be turned out well before 2020. Indeed, it might lack the legitimacy to govern in the first place, were it dependent on the votes of Scotland’s MPs.
So it was that during the Today programme on Monday morning, Miliband played the Unionist card. “It is regrettable to see a weak Prime Minister following his Party and not leading it by rushing to break up the United Kingdom,” he said. Asked by John Humphrys whether or not he regarded Scotland’s vote as final, the Labour leader answered: “Well, you know John, you’ll agree that last week’s result wasn’t absolutely overwhelming – after all, a majority of Scots didn’t vote for independence – and I think if you look at today’s papers and the news more broadly, you’ll see that some of those who voted Yes are already regretting it.” Pushed by Humphrys, he said: “I think what needs to happen now is for everyone to get together round the table and look at what’s happened without any presumptions.”
This tactical positioning anticipated three consequences of Scotland’s decision. First, that the losers of the independence referendum to date have been Miliband and Labour, squeezed between the Scottish nationalists of the SNP and the English nationalists of a Conservative (but scarcely Unionist) Party. Miliband was kept narrowly out of Number Ten in 2015 by Cameron’s minority government – which, post 2016 and departure of Scotland’s MPs, became a majority administration. Since then, its dominance south of the border has mirrored the SNP’s north of it. Cameron will be remembered as “the Prime Minister who lost the Union”. But “Tortoise Dave” is now a three-times election winner, having moved slowly from coalition to minority government to a Commons majority – and outright victory in 2020.
Second, the logic of secession is eating away at the rest of the United Kingdom*, and indeed at Scotland itself. The growth of devolutionary power in Wales is posing the Clwyd West question – an equivalent of the West Lothian question that troubled pre-independence Scotland. (Meanwhile, the Labour-voting north-east is demanding regional government.) And while there is no substantial movement in Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join Scotland – outside the loyalist-dominated parts of Belfast, at any rate – the effect of the latter’s decision has been destabilising: there has been a gradual upsurge of violence. Furthermore, Scotland now faces its own secessionist movement. The Orkney and Shetland islands have their own flourishing independence campaign.
Finally, there has been a backlash, within both Scotland and the UK, against voting for constitutional change in principle but without detail. Broadly speaking, the price Nicola Sturgeon has paid for keeping the pound and having the Queen as head of state is what some Scottish nationalists see as a bad deal on the sharing of UK debt and “Scotland’s oil”. No wonder polls show Labour poised to oust the SNP – in Scotland – and over two-thirds of Scots wanting to re-join the UK. Meanwhile, the uncertainties caused by Scotland’s departure undoubtedly played a part in the UK’s 2017 referendum decision to remain within the EU – as coincidence would have it, by 52 to 48 per cent. Ironically, it is Scotland that exited the EU, entering again in 2020.
So, then, we have a UK within the EU, though it may vote to come out in this year’s re-run, and a Scotland outside the UK, though it now seems to wants to come back in. Not that England will necessarily let it: next time round, any referendum on the matter will take place throughout the UK as well as in Scotland. Almost ten years on from Scotland’s fateful vote, both its constitutional future and our own is yet to be resolved.
* Or “RUK”, as it is now sometimes referred to – though some, such as Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, use the term “former United Kingdom”. We spare our readers the initials.