Scotland has voted No to independence. But following a tight campaign, its position within the Union won’t remain unchanged. What happens next and what does it mean for the key players?
Prior to the result, the Prime Minister repeatedly insisted that he wouldn’t be resigning in the event of a Yes vote. Here was his take on the matter, as reported by my colleague George Eaton:
My name is not on the ballot paper. What’s on the ballot paper is ‘does Scotland want to stay in the United Kingdom, or does Scotland want to separate itself from the United Kingdom?’. That’s the only question that will be decided on Thursday night. The question about my future will be decided at the British general election coming soon.
However, just because Scotland has voted No to independence doesn’t mean he’s in a particularly comfortable position.
Many Tory backbenchers have been furious at his hasty decision, alongside the other two pro-Union party leaders, to grant significantly greater powers to Scotland.
As the polls tightened towards the end of the campaign, the three Westminster leaders appeared to panic, and offered a “timeline” of further devolution for Scotland. The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced this in Scotland on the hoof, apparently without consulting Cameron, telling voters that devo-max negotiations would begin immediately following a No vote. The leaders this week made a “vow” to Scotland to grant it more power.
Many Conservative MPs are steadfastly against this thick and fast devo-max promise. They have been privately voicing their fury about their leader’s decision all week. Now that the referendum is out of the way, it is thought that they will begin publicly airing their anger. One Tory grandee told the Standard:
When Scotland votes No, as I hope it will, there are going to be a lot of questions about this whole process [of devolution].
There will be a bloodbath. Last night as I was listening to Cameron saying we are going to be providing all these additional benefits to Scotland, when we are struggling in so many areas of the UK. It’s all happening on the hoof, in cliquey conversations on telephones in Downing Street. It isn’t happening, and there are a number of us who are incensed who will make sure it isn’t going to happen. But let’s see what the results are first.
Needless to say, many of these MPs will rebel when Cameron tries to legislate for his devolution plan. Even Claire Perry, a government minister, broke ranks and warned there can be “no financial party bags to appease Mr Salmond”.
It is likely that Cameron, having rescued the Union by a whisker, will now have a tough time presiding over a party that is far from “better together”.
Before the vote, there was a lot of talk that the Labour leader, as well as the PM, would have to resign in the event of a Yes vote. He had a lot of responsibility to rally support among Scottish voters, considering the Labour party’s drastically stronger position than that of the Tories in Scotland.
Now that Scotland has voted No, Miliband’s position is pretty safe. But this won’t be a time for Miliband to relax in relief and exhaustion.
Labour party conference begins on Sunday. He will now have to make good, and potentially go further, on his party’s devolution agenda. He made a speech earlier this year promising to rebalance UK growth using English devolution: “the biggest economic devolution of power to England’s great towns and cities in a hundred years”. This will have to feature prominently in his conference and beyond, due to the constitutional shockwaves caused by the close-run Scottish independence debate.
Also, the referendum result was too close for comfort. This should be a wake-up call to the Labour party to break its cycle of unsatisfactory campaigning in Scotland, following Scottish Labour losing to the SNP in 2011.
Will Alex Salmond have to quit as SNP party leader or First Minister?
It’s a mark of his popularity and how much of a Teflon-type politician he is that this question had hardly been raised before now, even though a No result almost consistently seemed more likely.
It seemed like every day in the last weeks of campaigning that Cameron had to insist he wouldn’t resign in the case of a Yes vote. Salmond hasn’t as frequently had to answer the same questions.
He has said previously, however, that he won’t stand down in the event of a No vote:
We will continue to serve out the mandate we have been given and that applies to the SNP always. It applies to me – all of us.
However, he is inextricably linked to the Yes campaign. His failure in this diminishes his authority, at least as SNP leader, if not as First Minister.
There is also a precedent from the Quebec sovereignty movement. Jacques Parizeau, then premier of Quebec, resigned as leader of his separatist party the day after losing the 1995 independence referendum by just 1 per cent of the vote.
My colleague George Eaton reported from Scotland the day before the referendum that Salmond “could step down by November” if Scotland votes No. He was quoting an SNP party insider, who said that Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, was likely to take over from him following a No vote. Apparently an increasing number of nationalists are of this opinion.
However, Salmond’s biographer David Torrance commented last year to the Telegraph that it was unlikely the First Minister would have to resign, if the result was a fairly narrow one:
“If the Yes campaign gets between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote they can point to progress. If Salmond manages that I increasingly think he will hang on as leader and remain as First Minister. . . There will be no real pressure from the party after a No vote . . . Salmond is completely unchallenged because he has won two elections and delivered a referendum. For the party faithful that puts him in the stratosphere.”
As the polls narrowed in the last few days of the campaign, Westminster promised to devolve significantly greater powers to Scotland – if it voted No.
Now that Scottish voters have made that decision, it is time for the three pro-Union party leaders to thrash out the details of that promise.
They made a pledge of power to Scotland earlier this week, headlined “The Vow”, in the Daily Record. Read their promise here.
It pledged to keep the Barnett funding formula – a way of allocating public spending that favours Scotland per-head – in place. The final say on funding for the NHS will lie with the Scottish government.
The rest of the promise is rather vague, involving “extensive new powers” and “sharing resources equitably”. The details haven’t been specified because the three parties have to agree on how further power will be devolved to Scotland, and they disagree on some things. Better Together leader Alistair Darling called these “minor differences” on the BBC’s Today programme earlier this week. The main difference seems to be regarding greater tax powers for the Scottish Parliament. Reportedly, the Tories want to go further on this than Labour does.
Also, there is the problem – as outlined in the first section of this post – of Tory MPs rebelling against the government when it comes to legislation on this devo-max arrangement. This makes it less likely that the party leaders will be able to guide these changes through parliament as quickly and easily as they desire.
The result was much tighter than many assumed it would be. It has often been said by commentators that the slimmer the No win, the more likely a “neverendum” situation would be. This is when there is clearly such a huge pro-independence sentiment among the Scottish electorate that another referendum would have to be called.
Peter Kellner of YouGov predicted, when the Yes campaign pulled ahead in the polls for the first time, that another referendum would not be close behind:
. . . even if ‘no’ finally wins the day, it now looks less likely that it will win by a big enough margin to deliver a knock-out blow to supporters of independence. If the final vote is anything like our current poll figures, I would not bet much against a second referendum being held within the next 10-15 years.
However, a few days ago, Salmond insisted that this referendum would be the last chance in a generation to vote for independence. He said:
If you remember that previous constitutional referendum in Scotland – there was one in 1979 and then the next one was 1997.
That’s what I mean by a political generation.
In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.
Will this stand? It depends on whether or not the First Minister keeps his job and goes back on his word that he won’t call another referendum on the subject.