The amazing time travelling Alex Salmond.
Show Hide image

A shameless, self-interested plea to Scottish voters

Don't let go of the balloon.

Ian McEwan's 1997 novel Enduring Love begins with a hot air balloon that gets out of control. Half a dozen people cling on to its ropes, hoping to use their combined weight to drag it back to the ground; but gradually, it begins to lift and one by one, each fearing the danger of hanging on too long, they let go. The last to do so falls a very long way.

I've not really expressed any opinion on the Scottish independence vote before now. I'm entirely English; most of my time in Scotland has been spent in Edinburgh in August, making me the very worst kind of Englishman; and, more to the point, nobody cares what I think. The whole thing feels like it's nothing to do with me.

But recently I've realised two things. One is that most English people were acting like it wasn't anything to do with them either, treating the referendum as simply a quarrel in a far-away country.

This is silly: it is, after all, our country that could conceivably get dismembered. More than that, though, it's insulting. By declining to offer a UK-wide broadcast of the first debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, ITV managed to imply that the whole affair was nothing more than a matter of local politics. (In 2012, ITV1 did manage to broadcast the London mayoral debate, albeit only on its HD channel.) If I lived in Scotland, I suspect this would have pushed me to jump ship and take my chances with Salmond all by itself.

The other thing I've realised is that, actually, I do care what happens on 18 September. I care very much. I desperately want Scotland to vote no, not because of any misty-eyed attachment to nation or flag, but because of real, boring, practical reasons. The independence lot are letting go of the balloon.

There's an argument I keep hearing from Yessers, that's become ever louder the longer the campaign has gone on: vote yes, and never have a Tory government again. Vote yes and be free of those bastards. Even if the idea that an independent Scotland would never again elect a right-wing government looks ever so slightly delusional, I can sort of see how it might be seductive to those of a certain viewpoint. 

And yet, from a purely selfish point of view, it pisses me right off. It feels – this may be irrational of me, but it's the right word nonetheless – like a betrayal. 

Because there are those – there are many – in the rest of the UK who are not nuts about the modern Conservative party either. I like the NHS, and the BBC, and the welfare state, and not picking fights with our closest trading partners just to prove how hard we are. I'd like to keep those things. And until the Conservative party recovers from the psychotic episode it’s been going through for most of the last 30 years, I don't think I can trust it to protect them.

Scottish independence would make Tory majorities in the rest of the UK a damn sight more likely. It would gut the Labour party, and take out a big source of its talent over the last few decades. It’d deprive us of a helpful reminder that there are alternatives to the lingering post-Thatcher consensus, and they can work even within the UK. It’d move the whole centre of gravity of British politics three notches further to the right.

I'm sure it'll be lovely in the socialist paradise north of the border (actually I'm not, I think it'll be a disaster, but that's a whole different thing). Those of us still down here, though, will get totally and utterly screwed.

I'm aware that this must sound massively selfish – it is utterly selfish. But so, frankly, is the Scottish left's plan to cut and run, and to hell with the neighbours. So, with apologies for all the other shitty things the English have done down the years, just this once I reckon I'm on safe ground.

Here, then, is my shamelessly self-interested plea to Scotland: don't do it. Vote no. With you here, it's easier to win the argument for social democratic policies. With you here, it's easier to persuade Westminster that not all financial or political power can or should reside in London. Stick around, and we'll work out how to push more power out of the capital – not just to Edinburgh, but to Cardiff and Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds. Please, don't go.

Because, we are stronger together than we are apart. And every time someone lets go of the balloon things get a little bit worse for those of us who are still hanging on.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.