One Conservative recently remarked to me that the Scottish independence referendum was “win-win” for his party. If Scotland votes no, the Union is saved (although it is Alistair Darling, not David Cameron, who will receive most of the credit), if Scotland votes yes, the Tories acquire a huge advantage over Labour. While Ed Miliband’s party would be stripped of 41 MPs, David Cameron’s would lose just one. It’s for this reason that a 2009 ConservativeHome poll of 144 party candidates found that 46 per cent would not be “uncomfortable about Scotland becoming independent”, with some dreaming of a “permanent majority”.
It is this group that has been rebuked by former Conservative Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth, who said today: “There are number of foolish people in the Conservative Party in the south who are keen on independence or ‘devo max’ (devolution of all tax powers). Labour thought by creating devolution they would have permanent power in Scotland. I don’t think political parties can establish support by trying to gerrymander the constitution – the voters are smarter than that.”
Forsyth is certainly right to argue that the influence of Scotland on general election results has been exaggerated. 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 146, down from 143), in 1966 (77, down from 98), in 1997 (139, down from 179), in 2001 (129, down from 167) 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. What is true is that so long as British politics remains “hung” (with both main parties struggling to win an overall majority), Labour cannot afford for Scotland to go it alone. Were it not for their desultory performance north of the border, the Tories would have won a majority of 19 at the last election.
Independence wouldn’t make a Labour majority impossible, but it would certainly make it harder, which explains why, although some Tories are silently cheering Alex Salmond on, none of their Labour counterparts are. But unless Cameron’s party is able to dramatically improve its performance in the north and the midlands (where it holds just 20 of the 124 urban seats), Scottish independence would almost certainly lead to further hung parliaments (or small majorities for either party) , rather than the permanent majority that some Tories imagine.