Whether the vote is Yes or No, the British state will be irrevocably alteredby Peter Riddell / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
The Scottish referendum has been a seismic shock to our political system whether the result is Yes or No. The common assumption in Whitehall and Westminster until early September was that the No side would win without too much trouble, and that some more devolution would be introduced after the next UK election: if not business as usual, then a bit more incrementalism. But, even if the No side wins, that is no longer true.
A Yes victory would have huge, and unpredictable, constitutional and political implications, for all three main UK parties and their leaders. David Cameron would be very vulnerable and, within hours of a result, would have to show that the government has a grip and a plan.
A horrendously complicated transitional phase would then follow while negotiations were conducted. Who negotiates? What is their remit and timetable? Could talks be completed and, crucially, the necessary legislation passed by March 2016, the target set by the Scottish Nationalist Party? What happens to the 59 MPs from Scotland in the Commons in the interim? And what role do Scottish ministers play while discussions are underway?
There is talk that next year’s General Election could be postponed until negotiations are complete. That is a highly unlikely outcome since the parliament will already have lasted for five years by May 2015, and has only previously been extended in wartime. Any extension would require all party backing, which is again improbable, and legislation could be blocked by the House of Lords which retains an absolute veto on such a bill. More likely is an agreement to restrict the role of Scottish MPs, or, rather, to ensure that English and Welsh MPs have a veto on distinctly English and Welsh legislation, as suggested by the McKay Commission in March 2013.
Labour has traditionally relied on Scottish MPs—41 at present. But the legitimacy and authority of a government formed next May which depended on such “temporary” MPs, who would be departing within a year, would be vigorously challenged. Such a government would be weak and potentially unable to pass any contentious legislation. There would be pressure for a second General Election after Scottish independence was finalised, using the provisions to override the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
There will also be big constitutional questions about Scotland’s membership of the EU and Nato as well as over the share-out of assets and liabilities. It will be bonanza time for international lawyers. And then there is the currency question.
As significant would be the secondary effects outside Scotland. In legal terms, the United Kingdom will be the successor state, retaining its international obligations and position. But what should it be called? And, more profoundly, what would “rUK”, or “rump UK” mean? There is already soul-searching about the implications for the entire idea of the United Kingdom. Wales and Northern Ireland would not be satisfied with current arrangements and there would be strong pressures for an “English” solution—whether an English parliament or more devolution within England. But there is not even remote agreement on the level of devolution whether to regions (rejected in the north-east a decade ago), to elected mayors (largely rejected in 2012) or to city/regions, the latest fashion.
The British state would be reshaped. And that is to leave aside Europe. A reassertion of English nationalism is closely linked to euroscepticism, increasing the chances of a vote against remaining in the EU in any referendum in the next parliament.
Many of these influences would also apply in the case of a No vote, largely because of the way the campaign has gone in the past ten days. David Cameron has moved from originally, in 2012, saying that further devolution in Scotland might be considered if there was a No vote, to specific proposals for substantial transfers of tax powers as suggested by the Strathclyde Commission earlier this year, to the acceptance of a timetable for agreement upon detailed plans and the production of a draft bill by January, as outlined by Gordon Brown. Indeed, Mr Brown has behaved almost as if he was still Prime Minister not only by his impassioned interventions but, more significantly, by setting the terms of the debate, leaving the party leaders following him.
There are, however, major problems. First, the timetable is very ambitious and would mean that Whitehall will focus on little else in the coming months. Second, there is no agreement on the sharply differing proposals for more devolution for Scotland proposed by the main parties, which have big implications for the balance between London and Edinburgh over tax-raising. Third, and increasingly important, other parts of the UK and particularly English Tory MPs, have reacted strongly to the Brown plan (really just a timetable), especially the reaffirmation of the much misunderstood Barnett formula for allocating public spending within the UK (in practice, determining changes in, not levels of, spending).
The coalition and the Opposition alike will have to provide “English” answers, not just to ensure that they can deliver on more devolution for Scotland but also to respond to internal party pressures. An English parliament still looks improbable, since, in practice, it would take on most of the responsibilities of the Westminster Parliament. But while the form of devolution may be uneven between different parts of the UK, the result will be an increasingly federal structure. The familiar image of a strong, centralized state will be gone.