Beyond the referendum: “2016 should be the year in which Scottish devolution grows up”

Jim-Gallagher

It has now been a year since the vote on Scottish independence. Jim Gallagher considers how divisions which emerged between yes and no voters during the campaign have persisted, and the challenges this creates. He argues that Scotland now faces a different set of choices–not what country to belong to, but what sort of country it really wants to be.

Zhou Enlai is said to have quipped that 200 years was too short a time to judge the effect of the French Revolution. 12 months certainly isn’t long enough to assess the legacy of the Scottish referendum.

It was certainly an extraordinary process. For two years, Scotland talked about nothing but Scotland, and an unprecedented number of people eventually cast their vote, one way or another.

Energy and Division

The debate was extraordinary, sometimes energising, but also deeply divisive. Not just because people took opposing views. Yes voters – rationally or not – were hopeful; they wanted things to change and independence represented change. Many no voters were fearful; they had not asked to make this choice, and feared disruptive change would be forced on them.

The campaigning was unprecedented: the intensity of an election, but lasting two years. The opposing campaigns talked incessantly about Scotland, but hardly engaged with each other. The Scottish government’s doorstop of a White Paper was a partisan, not a government, publication. The relentless positivity of the yes campaign spoke primarily to the heart. Questions of economics or policy choice were airly dismissed as irrelevant, or establishment bluff. Better Together’s head was more firmly screwed on, but it’s hard to make saying no, even ‘no thanks’, sound positive. The UK government’s publications argued a case, but without much pizzazz.

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Can the Union Survive? (It’s about the British identity, stupid. But what is it? )

In the latest of a series of British Association/Royal Society of Edinburgh seminars, the question was debated in sparkling style by a stellar panel of Vernon Bogdanor John Curtice, Michael Keating and Adam Tomkins. This summary requires no additional commentary.

Vernon Bogdanor thought the decision on independence was more momentous than was admitted by either side. Both sides agree that nationhood matters less in a globalised world but they go too far. Separatism can’t be fudged by social union. Nationhood still matters. The EU hasn’t really got a foreign policy and its future shape will probably not be what the founding fathers wanted. Even in the eurozone it really matters in which country you live.

Independence means a fundamental discontinuity which cannot be fudged. There would presumably be a governor general in Edinburgh and a high commissioner in London. Scots would enjoy no leverage at Westminster. Like Norway with the EU, Scotland would be consulted but little noticed. As EU decisions are faxed to Oslo so Scotland would become a “faxed democracy.”

Has the question already been answered? It isn’t really a question about £500 more or less better off per person. It is primordial, like the Irish in the 1920s. Will Scots say: “We do not belong with you any more?”

There is insufficient analysis of what holds the UK together and we should be extremely grateful to the SNP for raising it.  What’s being asked is a primordial question of identity.

On identity, John Curtice partly disagreed with Bogdanor. Scots were a nation of dual identity. The referendum is not about how Scottish they feel – everyone does – but how British. Not all “Scottish onlys” are in favour of independence.. Identity does not provide a sufficient guide for how to vote and a No vote may be a conditional vote. This is where the economy is crucial. Scots are no more nor no less keen on independence than they were 10, even 40 years ago. Labour made the mistake of thinking Scots wanted a lovely partnership with London. The SNP realised they really wanted devolved government to defend Scotland’s interest against London. They voted for SNP competence rather than independence. They believe that only foreign affairs  and defence are clearly not Edinburgh’s business but opinion in favour of maximum devolution is not widely shared. For example only a third of Scots want different pensions from the English. They don’t want to leave the UK safety net behind.

If the vote is No, England is not looking for devolution so a symmetrical Union solution is unlikely. But more taxation powers for Edinburgh could be win:win for both Scots and English as that means Scots would  pay for more of their services themselves. Wrangling over the (already contracting) Barnett formula should go away.

George Osborne’s veto on currency union flopped in Scotland but seems to have made the English keener on the Union. They are recording 3:1 in favour of Scotland staying in and that independence would not be good for England and Wales either. This means that if there’s a Yes vote the English may strike a tough deal.

Michael Keating insisted that “independence” and “ sovereignty” don’t mean want they used to. Even with a No vote, the relationship will be reconfigured in a way not very far from “independence lite.” In Scotland the sovereignty of the Crown or Parliament was never quite established as in in Westminster ; that’s why Scots are quite happy to discuss a divided or multiple sovereignty.

It used to be said that welfare and taxation policy were essential to sovereignty. That’s changing. The debates on welfare and independence are linked. The present welfare state is unsustainable. The social compromise in Scotland is mediated differently from England and will probably mean higher taxation. In 10 years’ time there will be more autonomous devolution but probably not full independence.

Adam Tomkins delivered a scathing critique of the SNP White Paper “Scotland’s Independence.” It failed to distinguish between institutions ( which would cease to apply to Scotland such as the Bank of England, the BBC, the intelligence service and embassies) and assets which would be fairly apportioned on independence. Apportionment was a highly complex task but doable. He delivered the stark verdict: the SNP’s assumptions are wrong in law and the White Paper is a false prospectus.

Final thoughts : Michael Keating thought that after a Yes vote, independence could be negotiated by the May 2016 deadline of the next election to the Scottish Parliament.(The Constitution Unit has doubts).

Vernon Bodganor didn’t see how Scottish membership of the EU could be denied. And something must be done for English cities to redress the imbalance of London and central government.

There is deep concern in Dublin that a Yes vote would destabilise the power sharing St Andrews Agreement in Northern Ireland.

A better articulation is needed of the Union state.

John Curtice spoke for the panel consensus. The referendum was the No campaign’s to lose but he didn’t underestimate their capacity for messing it up.

Scottish Independence and the UK general election

At Nicola Sturgeon’s lecture on Scottish independence on 13 February, she was asked about the 2015 general election, and how that might affect the timetable for Scottish independence.

If Scotland votes Yes this September, then the timing of the UK general election in May 2015 presents difficulties for the Scottish government and for the UK government.  It presents difficulties for the Scottish government, because they propose an 18 month timetable for the independence negotiations, from September 2014 to March 2016, and the UK general election falls right in the middle of that.  The negotiations will be very intensive, and involve every senior Minister in the UK government, with separate teams leading on finance, defence, energy, transport etc.  If there is a change of government in the UK in 2015 all those ministerial teams would change; and the new Ministers might start to unpick what had been agreed so far.  That could slow down what is already a very tight timetable.

The UK government will also be in difficulty if there is a change in 2015.  It will be in particular difficulty if Scottish MPs hold the balance of power in the new Parliament.  That is most likely to happen if Labour is the largest party in the May 2015 elections, but depends on Scottish MPs to form a government (as happened in 1964 and 1974).  On the SNP timetable, those Scottish MPs would be short lived, and due to leave Westminster in March 2016, when Scotland becomes independent.   If the removal of those MPs meant that the government was unlikely to command the confidence of the House of Commons thereafter, the government would be a lame duck government from the start.

Formally there is an answer to what would happen in March 2016 (if that is Independence Day, and the date when the Scottish MPs depart).  It is provided by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.  Under that Act, if the government loses a formal no confidence motion, and no alternative government can be formed within 14 days, then fresh elections must be held.  But that formal constitutional answer might not be a sufficient answer to the political difficulties facing the government from the outset.

We could have a ‘temporary’ or ‘transitional’ government for a period of time until Scotland formally leaves the union.  Public sentiment in the rest of Britain is unlikely to be sympathetic to the idea that the Scots who are leaving the Union are ‘imposing’ a government on the rest of the UK (think of the headlines in the Sun and the Mail).  Another twist is that the UK government negotiating the terms of Scottish independence would be responsible to a Westminster Parliament which still contains Scottish MPs.  The UK government should be negotiating on behalf of rUK, the rest of the UK after Scotland has departed.  But if Scottish MPs held the balance of power at Westminster, they might be able to ensure terms which were more favourable to Scotland.

For Ed Miliband being reliant on short lived Scottish MPs to form his first government would be a nightmare scenario.  He will be praying even harder than David Cameron for a No vote in September.