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Leader: Even if the Union endures, the status quo should not

The current constitutional settlement is unsustainable.

In much of Westminster, Alex Salmond’s campaign for Scottish independence is already regarded as a doomed cause. The Yes campaign has trailed in every poll since the start of 2012 and has been repeatedly forced on to the defensive over its stance on EU membership and currency. With David Cameron maintaining a shrewd distance from the battlefield, the assumption is that Alistair Darling will lead the unionist side to victory next year.

But while Mr Salmond and the Scottish National Party (SNP) start from behind, there is nothing inevitable about them finishing there. As the Scottish First Minister reminds us in his interview with Jason Cowley on page 24, he has confounded predictions throughout his 26-year career. In 1995, many echoed the former Labour defence secretary George Robertson’s forecast that: “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.” Before the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP trailed Labour by as much as 20 points but went on to win by 14 and secure an overall majority (an outcome the New Statesman had long warned of). It is with the confidence of a man who specialises in defying the odds that Mr Salmond declares: “This is the phoney war . . . The real game hasn’t even started.”

A combination of factors – prolonged austerity, the lack of enthusiasm for Labour and the uncertainty over Britain’s EU membership – has given the SNP leader cause for optimism. Most of the coalition government’s harshest cuts, such as the benefit cap and the “bedroom tax”, are only now taking effect. Confronted by the full force of George Osborne’s austerity programme in September 2014, Scottish voters may well decide to go it alone. As Mr Salmond argues, the “bedroom tax” could have “the same galvanising effect as the poll tax”. The admission by Labour that it would have to make further reductions in public spending and retain most or all of the coalition’s cuts has provided Mr Salmond with a renewed opportunity to present himself as the social-democratic alternative to an austerity-lite opposition. An independent Scotland, he reveals, would make it a constitutional right for “every young person to be offered the opportunity of education, work or training.” If Ed Miliband and Ed Balls fail to offer a convincing economic alternative, the danger is that Mr Salmond will.

Mr Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, at the behest of the UK Independence Party and his recalcitrant backbenchers, has similarly helped the SNP’s cause. A recent poll showed that the No campaign’s 8-point lead disappears when the Scottish public is asked how it would vote if the UK looked likely to leave the EU. Significantly, three times as many undecided voters support independence as oppose it under these circumstances. With figures as senior as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond suggesting that Britain could benefit from withdrawal and the electorate apparently persuaded by their arguments, Mr Salmond’s work is being done for him.

Yet, though the unionist side should shun complacency, it is right to believe that even a campaigner as formidable as Mr Salmond will struggle to avoid defeat. His refusal to publish the legal advice on whether Scotland would inherit Britain’s membership of the EU and the uncertainty over his preferred option of a currency union with the rest of the UK (unionist figures privately suggest that they may pledge to stage a referendum on the matter) have damaged his standing. And with Mr Salmond pledged to preserve so many of the features of the British state – the monarchy, the pound, the welfare system, Nato membership – independence looks increasingly like a solution in search of a problem.

However, even if the Union endures, as this magazine hopes it will, the status quo will not. This is not just because a narrow victory would inevitably prompt discussion of a second referendum at some point to come but because the current constitutional settlement is unsustainable. In Scotland, there is widespread, consistent support for greater fiscal autonomy, while in England there is increasing resentment at the inequalities created by devolution. A poll last year by IPPR found that 79 per cent of English voters agree that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on English laws. The former Labour cabinet minister John Reid may once have quipped that the answer to the West Lothian question was to stop asking it but, if the government wishes to avoid future constitutional crises, it cannot ignore this quandary.

In the case of Scotland, talk of devolution max as an agreeable compromise disguises what a radical step it would be. Holyrood would win control of spending, borrowing and taxation, leaving Westminster only foreign affairs and defence. What, for instance, would be the consequences for English business of Scotland adopting an ultra-low rate of corporation tax? If judged successful, would fiscal autonomy be extended to England and Wales? It is these questions that Westminster must begin to debate.

Mr Salmond’s greatest advantage is time. He still has 15 months to win voters round to his side and in the meantime can look forward to next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. He would like nothing better than the opportunity to portray an English elite as having declared the race over more than a year in advance. It is one they must deny him.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland