Responding to polls showing gains for the Yes campaign in Scotland, some MPs have suggested postponing the general election to 2016 in the event of a vote for Scottish independence. In reality, there is much more scope for change – and the mischief of suggesting change – than just extending the life of this parliament by a year.
The first issue that the UK government will face, if the result is Yes, is whether to assert that it is, in terms of public international law, the “continuator state”. As such, it would retain its current international status and institutions. This is by far the most likely outcome and it is, for example, what Russia did on the break-up of the Soviet Union.
However, a large number of backbench MPs aren’t that enamoured of some of the UK’s international obligations, whether as a member state of the EU or as a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights. Theoretically, it would be possible for the UK to throw all of these up in the air by declaring that it is going to become a new state on the secession of Scotland. It’s Brexit by the back door, shedding the influence of the Strasbourg human rights court at a stroke.
Obviously this would be an act of momentous chutzpah and it’s laden with risk – for example, the new UK might be unlikely to regain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In the meantime, UK financial markets will probably crash. However, it’s not inconceivable that some MPs will suggest the idea in the excitement following a Yes vote.
More seriously, there is a big question about the role of the UK government and parliament in relation to Scotland during negotiations over independence. Alistair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has suggested that the UK government would no longer seek to act on behalf of the Scottish people immediately following a vote for independence. The logic of this is obvious: it is hard to see how the UK government would feel legitimate making any significant decision about Scotland when independence is merely months away.
To avoid decisions for Scotland resting in limbo, one possibility, recommended by the House of Lords select committee on the constitution, is that the UK parliament quickly passes legislation to transfer further powers to Scotland. This in turn begs a further question. If all significant decisions about Scotland, other than, say, defence, are effectively devolved by the end of this year, then why should Scottish MPs still have the right to vote at Westminster? There may be an agreement that they recuse themselves from all votes and that may clear the way for the Conservatives to govern alone for the rest of this Parliament. After all, without Scottish MPs voting, they would have a majority, albeit a tiny one, even without the Liberal Democrats. Sensing that prospect, the clamour for a May 2016 general election on the Conservative benches may grow.
More than that partisan interest there is a broader argument to be made that the outcome of a negotiation with Scotland should receive some form of popular mandate from the remaining UK. All in all the more formality around the negotiation process the better. The Lords Constitution Committee has recommended that the negotiating team is set up with a mandate from the UK parliament and that it is cross-party – and perhaps even broader – in its composition. A negotiation conducted only by representatives from the UK government is not appropriate to the task in hand, the outcomes of which will echo through the ages.
Putting those to a vote in a general election might even give the rest of the UK something like the civic conversation that Scotland is enjoying during the referendum campaign. Certainly it would prompt wider questions about the distribution of political and economic power across the rest of the UK. Delaying the general election to 2016 will look like putting off an electoral reckoning for the coalition; but it might also give us something very exciting to vote on.
Emran Mian is the director of Social Market Foundation