Scotland’s place in the Union is precarious but independence would not bring stability

If Boris Johnson were to refuse another referendum, it would be harder to persuade Scottish voters that they are better served in the Union.

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Boris Johnson’s presence in Downing Street, and the contrast in style between him and Nicola Sturgeon during the pandemic, has created a surge in support for the nationalist cause in Scotland. At a time when Brexit has made Scottish independence a significantly tougher economic prospect, Scotland’s place in the Union seems increasingly precarious.

Seen historically, there is a paradox. The Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union was constructed in 1707 to deal with a great volume of discord between life in England and Scotland. Individual leaders, whose oversized personalities amplify the contrast between the two countries, should not threaten a Union that was built to allow for deep differentiation.

Although the Union prior to devolution has often been cast as a centralised construction, with power hoarded in London, in many ways this was not the case. Until 1999, the existence of a parliamentary as well as monarchical union did not prevent Scotland from enjoying its own established church, legal system and educational practices. There were political differences too: for more than a century after the Union began, the franchise for elections to the UK parliament was significantly narrower in Scotland than in England and Wales.

There were good reasons for this prudence. All configurations of political authority on this island before the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 had been fragile, and the monarchical union of England and Scotland under James I in 1603 had laid a path that led to civil war. The Union simply could not bear too much unity.

It is under threat today because first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair, both having won large English majorities, threw caution to the wind. The context for their actions was the attempt to reform the Union in the late 1970s. Dependent on the SNP to retain office, James Callaghan’s Labour government legislated to divide the UK parliamentary union through Scottish and Welsh devolution, conditional on referendums in Scotland and Wales, but without Callaghan holding an English parliamentary majority or offering a referendum in England.

The part the Winter of Discontent played in the Conservatives’ subsequent victory in 1979 has obscured that election’s significance as a moment when an English grievance against constitutional change made at England’s expense asserted itself. The Conservatives won more English seats in 1979 than at any election since 1959. Four years later, they won more English seats than in any vote since near-full-franchise elections began in 1918, other than the 1931 election when they ran as part of the National government. Freed from an electoral need to worry about Scottish seats, the Thatcher governments took decisions about North Sea oil, deindustrialisation and the poll tax with scant regard for their long-term consequences for Scottish consent to the Union.

After its 1997 landslide victory, Labour returned to the devolution agenda thwarted in 1979 without any concern for an English backlash. But, as the English constitutional theorist AV Dicey explained in the 1880s, once the parliamentary union had been broken, any arrangements put in its place were bound to create instability in England.

In the 2000s Labour’s English majority fell to a size where back-bench rebellions could leave the government reliant on Scottish MPs voting on English bills, and demands for “English votes for English laws” materialised. In summer 2014, panicked by developments in an independence referendum it had hitherto not taken seriously, the coalition government hastily granted more powers to Edinburgh. David Cameron did realise the corollary would be English MPs having a veto over English-only bills. But the emergency decision-making to deal with the pandemic in recent months has at last unveiled the reality: when the parliamentary union was fractured in 1999, the UK government became the English executive.

Since the 2011 Holyrood election, from which Labour has never recovered, this constitutional quagmire has had to contain more electoral differences between England and Scotland than the need for losers’ consent in elections can quite bear. Thereafter, the Conservatives acquired an advantage in Westminster elections. A Labour government propped up by the SNP would lack legitimacy in England.

Barring a Conservative collapse comparable to 1997, any majority Labour government would almost certainly not have a majority of English MPs, and would therefore be unable to legislate on English matters without first repealing the English-votes-for-English-laws legislation passed in October 2015. The Conservatives’ structural advantage deepens the losers’ consent problem in Scotland, which will not go away unless and until Labour wins many more votes in both Scotland and England.

Scottish nationalists may hope that the impossibility of stability within a severed parliamentary union renders independence inevitable. But independence would rely on temporary sterlingisation, where Scotland continues to use sterling until it establishes its own national currency. During this transition period, it would have no access to a lender-of-last resort in a world where governments are entirely dependent on central banks to buy their debt. This would be no more stable than the present constitutional situation inside the Union.

If, commanding his large English majority, Johnson refuses the Scottish government another referendum, he only makes it less likely that these hard realities can persuade enough Scottish voters that they will be better served by sticking with the Union. If they can be persuaded, we must then find our collective way to a settlement that allows for Anglo-Scottish divergence without leading to constitutional crisis. 

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic

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