Ed Miliband with Alistair Darling at the Labour conference in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What happens to Scottish MPs if Scotland votes Yes?

Would they be allowed to vote on UK-wide laws? And would they still stand in May 2015?

After months of indifference, Westminster and Fleet Street have finally begun to recognise the significance of this September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Issues such as which currency the putative state would use and whether it would be able to join the EU are now accorded the attention they deserve. But there remains remarkably little discussion of what the political and constitutional consequences of a Yes vote would be.

If Scotland votes for independence on 18 September, the Scottish and UK governments will open negotiations on such matters as how to divide the national debt and North Sea oil revenues, the future location of the UK’s nuclear weapons and the possibility of a currency union. The Scottish National Party aims to reach a final agreement by 24 March 2016 (“independence day”), in time for the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May 2016.

One issue that would need to be resolved long before then is the status of Westminster’s 59 Scottish MPs following a vote in favour of independence. As the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith has warned, the UK would face a “constitutional crisis the like of which has never been seen”. The West Lothian question, which disputes the right of Scottish MPs to vote on reserved matters following devolution, would be posed in its most extreme form: should the MPs of a country that will soon secede be allowed to have any say on UK policy? Should they be allowed to serve in the British government? Some Conservatives darkly question whether David Cameron, having lost the Union, would be forced to resign as Prime Minister.

There would be further upheaval in May 2015 when Scottish voters would elect MPs to serve for as little as ten months before being expelled from Westminster. Were a Labour (or Labour-Lib Dem) government to be formed on the basis of support from MPs north of the border (where Labour currently holds 41 MPs to the Conservatives’ one), the right-wing media and many Tories would denounce it as an illegitimate imposition on the rest of the UK. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, would face the prospect of losing his majority less than a year after becoming prime minister. As a Labour MP put it to me, “If we lose Scotland, we could be completely buggered.”

The belief that Scottish independence would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative government is one that inspires hope among Tories (“It’s win-win for us,” one told me recently) and despair among Labour. But both overestimate the influence of Scotland on general elections. On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 143, down from 146), in 1966 (75, down from 98), in 1997 (137, down from 179), in 2001 (127, down from 166) and in 2005 (43, down from 66).

What those who say that Labour cannot win without Scotland are really arguing is that the party will never win a sizeable majority again. History shows that England and Wales are prepared to elect a Labour government when the conditions are right. But, at least for psephological reasons, it is Miliband, more than Cameron, who has cause to fear the tightening of the polls.

This piece appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle