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