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10 September 2014

Operation disintegration: has the Scotland debate made regional parties smell blood?

Time for a separate Cornish state, or an English First Minister? How about a breakaway Wales, or resurrecting Wessex? The UK's regional parties reflect on what the Scottish independence debate means for them.

By Alexander Woolley

Only a few weeks ago many were convinced Scottish independence was a impossibility. But a shock YouGov poll at the weekend that put the Yes campaign in the lead for the first time, published by the Sunday Times, has meant everyone is waking up to the idea that the people of Scotland could very well choose to leave the UK on 18 September. The other regionalist parties of Great Britain are particularly keen observers.

“There is a growing recognition that the extremities [of the UK] are beginning to move away,” Richard Carter, leader of the Yorkshire First party, tells the New Statesman. “But independence is the wrong solution – an argument about borders doesn’t make sense in our interconnected world.”

Yorkshire First was only set up in March of this year, but two months later it won over 19,000 votes in the European elections in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Clearly it has managed to capture the anti-Westminster, localist mood that has become prevalent across swathes of the UK.

The far more established Plaid Cymru, which, in the long term, seeks full independence for Wales, are watching the referendum intently. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, is currently in Scotland helping out with the Yes campaign. She tells the New Statesman: “What’s incredibly interesting is that the Yes campaign is a truly grassroots movement. People are really informed – I’ve never seen this level of engagement before. Chatting to taxi drivers about polls in the FT is a common experience!”

Wood is partly there to see what tactics she can take back to Wales. She highlights the cross-societal aspect of the Yes campaign as particularly effective: “There’s been a deliberate attempt to have people involved who aren’t aligned with political parties. It’s not just the same old characters.”

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The Scottish referendum is being greeted with similar interest by Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, a centre-left party that campaigns for a National Assembly for Cornwall: “What’s happening in Scotland gives us hope, even though we’re campaigning for devolution, not independence. For us, it’s about getting some devolution to the Cornish people – at the moment where there is devolution, it’s to LEPs [Local Enterprise Partnerships] and quangos, and that’s not very democratic.”

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Cole has also recently been on a trip to Scotland: he was invited to speak on the implications of the referendum at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. He likewise came back surprised by how involved so many Scots are. “The impression I got was that there’s such an engaged debate, and we’re really jealous of that.”

Membership enquiries for the Wessex Regionalist Party are on the increase, according to general secretary David Robins. “It’s affecting us very positively. Scottish independence will cause a rethink of British politics – whichever way it goes, we feel we’ll be able to benefit from it.”

The Wessex Regionalist Party, formed in the Seventies, campaigns for powers to be devolved from Westminster to Wessex, an area it defines as the southwest of England, excluding Cornwall, but including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. “I don’t think we’d ever want independence,” Robins says. “We value the English context.”

The most dramatic sentiments come from Robin Tilbrook, chair of the English Democrats, a party that once campaigned for the establishment of an English Parliament and First Minister in imitation of the Scottish and Welsh models. It now fights for England to become an independent country – “over time we’ve become jaundiced at the idea the UK could be reformable as a proper democratic country.”

Tilbrook, a practising litigation solicitor, says that the dissolution of the Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707, would mean not just that Scotland left the UK, but that the UK would no longer exist. “As a lawyer it makes no sense to speak of the UK if Scotland leaves.” The 1801 Acts of Union, which joined Ireland to Great Britain, would also become invalid: “Great Britain was a term invented to include Scotland, legally and linguistically.”

“The referendum debate certainly justifies much of what we’ve been saying,” he says, happily. “England will be almost independent as a consequence of this, although the union with Wales isn’t dissolved.”

Tilbrook has also been on the lookout for Yes campaign tactics that could be used by the English Democrats. “A couple of their supporters gave £5m to the Yes Campaign,” he says, referring to Chris and Colin Weir, before continuing with a chuckle: “If we had £5m, that would do no end of good.”