Last night’s BBC 2 programme [12th August] presented by Andrew Neil – Scotland Votes: What’s at stake for the UK?, looked at the impact of Scottish independence on the nature, standing and sustainability of the continuing United Kingdom.
This is territory For Argyll has been concerned with for some time. It was fascinating – and instructive – to see the issues explored by others and available to a national audience.
The key clarifications are that:
- the impact on our partners remaining in the union is incalculable but will be profound;
- those partner regions have not yet really engaged with the potential consequences for themselves if Scotland votes to depart from the Union – because they are frightened of what they would find if they looked at the situation.
So while we, north of the border, find it hard to think about anything else because we have been living in an increasingly divisive limbo for two years, our 300 year partners may look as if life is ‘business as usual’ for them, but are consciously ‘doing the ostrich’ – a very British response.
But what can happen may well happen and last night’s programme lifted the stone on a nest of high level issues and paid most of them forensic attention.
- the sustainability of the union of the remaining partners;
- the certain rise of English nationalism;
- a political scenario that will take a decade at least to rebalance;
- a less certain defence;
- a virtually certain imperative, on financial and physical grounds, to accept enforced unilateral nuclear disarmament;
- a certain reduction in international status and influence;
- a necessary commitment to membership of the EU;
- a potential lame duck government elected in 2015 with a short life span;
- the loss of key symbols of identity – like the Union Jack; and a possible change of name.
Issues that will impact directly on Scotland, in the event of a decision for independence include:
- deep resentment in the continuing United Kingdom regions at the damage unilaterally forced upon them by the departing Scotland;
- a 2015 General Election campaign therefore marked by a bidding war between the parties contesting seats in the continuing United Kingdom – on how to deny the departing Scotland as much as possible;
- massively complex issues around the disposition of currently common assets – with cultural heritage assets on both sides of the border a previously undiscussed matter.
We don’t propose to go into the detail of every one of the issues above, but to focus on some of the most concerning. We recommend anyone who did not see the programme to do so through the BBC iplayer. [It went out at 09.30pm on 12th August on BBC 2 and the title is above.]
A matter of scale
The departure of Scotland from the Union and the consequent division of assets would together see the United Kingdom lose 8.3% of its current population, one third of its land mass and, almost certainly, become a reduced military power.
The result of this would be emerging nation states with burgeoning economies – like Brazil, with 198.4 million people, questioning the continuing United Kingdom’s right to seats at the top tables of the international geopolitical, defence, economic and environmental organisations.
The continuing United Kingdom’s position, once questioned in this way – triggered by its change in membership, would not be justifiable.
It would be forced, with its 58.3 million people, to accept a diminished worldwide status and authority, with a knock-on impact on its economic development strategy. [And realistically, where would Scotland be, with 5.3 million people? This would be a self inflicted double whammy for this country.]
The suggestion in last night’s programme was that the obvious solution for the continuing United Kingdom would be to practice the art of the possible in tucking itself securely under the wing of the European Union; and pragmatically retaining some sort of voice by being part of that larger choir.
The basic premise here is that, in worldwide status, size does matter; that the United Kingdom has been getting by for a considerable time on the reverberations of its past geopolitical weight; but that the loss of Scotland – which has energetically sought to draw worldwide attention to its independence campaign, would undermine any continuance of that sleight-of-hand position.
Defence and social welfare
SNP MP Angus Robertson claimed to camera last night that this island as a whole would end up better defended than it is just now – because the continuing United Kingdom would have to spend more to replace the military resources that would have been handed over as Scotland’s share; or do without them, as a larger and ore populous country?
So waste through unnecessary duplication would be a positive outcome?
And the island would be better defended without the central command and control for the entire territory it has today? Robertson didn’t mention that one.
The MP for Moray represents a party currently majoring on virtually daily new promises that independence would bring more and better free social welfare services.
Yet in the monovision of the pro-independence faction, it is clearly of no account that those other 58.3 millions resident in the continuing United Kingdom would – as a direct result of a unilateral vote for Scottish independence – have less financial resources to spend on their own welfare, for having to cover replacement military materiel.
Another matter emerging on defence was that the United Kingdom government had issued an edict to the Ministry of Defence that no work was to be done on contingency planning for having to move Trident out of Scotland in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.
They had done this for fear that leaks might be seized upon by the Scottish Nationalists as evidence that the MoD was preparing to move Trident – and therefore preparing to lose.
While this is proof that the United Kingdom has no ‘Plan B’ on Trident, the situation is not comparable with the Scottish Government’s lack of an alternative option should a sterling currency union prove impossible.
In this latter case, The Scottish Government is inviting Scotland’s voters to choose independence – with no indication other than the First Minister’s unilateral assurances, of what the currency of the new country will be. This leaves businesses, savers, investors, mortage holders and pensioners with no idea how these investments will be managed and will perform.
The United Kingdom may have no fall back position on Trident but will know well – as was aired last night – that, in any case, it might have to accept an enforced unilateral nuclear disarmament, to which relatively few citizens would actively object.
The rise of the Brit Nat
It is certain that the loss of Scotland from the Union would result in an accelerated rise of English nationalism – and sub-nationalist regionalism, which could prompt later fractures. This rise of English nationalism is already in progress – and Nigel Farage spoke complacently of the number of English flags, the Cross of St George, now manifestly being flown in England.
Simon Jenkins was a passionate defender of this development, talking interestingly of how England has been muted by feeling itself squeezed between London and Scotland; and that the removal of Scotland would give England the freedom to explore, express and assert itself as it has not done.
The problem with this proposition is that Jenkins clearly sees the England that would emerge as positioned on an axis between Agatha Christie’s picture of St Mary Mead, the village home of her heroine sleuth, Miss Marple and the equally anachronistic rural idylls of Cumbria and Yorkshire.
He showed no evidence of seeing – and certainly took no overt account of – the ethnic spectrum of the citizens of England today who, whatever abrasions cultural differences bring, have contributed hugely to the economic performance of the country and to a culture of relative tolerance.
Scottish nationalism has yet to confront the reality of the tensions and compromises that substantial immigration brings; but any nationalism – as opposed to patriotism – is, by definition, at least subliminally racist. It would be naive not to expect this to be a bumpy ride.
The issue for the continuing United Kingdom here is the internal skewing of an accelerated rise in English nationalism, which will bring political as well as social consequences.
England will no longer tolerate – and we cannot understand why it has done so up to now – the disparity it suffers in the lack of direct democratic control of its own affairs.
It will no longer be passively accepting of what is a gaping democratic deficit resulting from Tony Blair’s crudely fast-tracked broad-brush reform of the United Kingdom. That saw varying forms of devolution for Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland , virtually on demand. England didn’t ask, never mind demand, so England didn’t get.
A more nationalist England will be insistent and self-seeking, with all of the attendant internal tensions and readjustments that will follow. England will rightly demand parity with Wales and Northern Ireland and it has the power of numbers to get what it demands.
The political composition of the House of Commons
Currently, there are 650 seats in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, with 59 of these from Scottish constituencies.
Of the 650 seats, currently:
- Conservatives hold 305, with 1 a Scottish seat;
- Labour hold 257, with 42 of these Scottish seats.
- Liberal Democrats hold 56, with 11 of them Scottish seats.
Scottish independence would see the abolition of Scottish seats at Westminster, with Labour the major loser – of 42 seats.
The Conservatives would be virtually untouched losing 1 seat.
The Liberal Democrats, dropping 11 with the loss of Scotland, would have far greater problems south of the border in holding on to their seats, with the rise of UKIP, which will see many of their seats as easy pickings.
As things currently stand and which will apply at the General Election in May 2015, it needs a minimum of 326 seats to govern as a majority administration. In 2010, a majority government had to be formed by the largest single party, the Conservatives, agreeing a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which gave them 361, an overall majority of 35.
If Scotland chose independence this September and if Independence Day was, as Alex Salmond intends, 24th March 2016, the removal from Westminster of the 59 Scottish seats would see the majority administration threshold fall to 296 – but Labour would have lost 42 – just over 70% – of those Scottish seats.
Were this situation the case on today’s political composition of the House of Commons, the position would be:
- Labour: 215
- Conservative 304
- Liberal Democrat: 45.
On these figures the Conservatives would alone have a majority of 8.
The impact of an independence vote on the 2015 United Kingdom General Election
The programme last night looked at the impact on the 2015 General Election campaign of a pro-independence vote in September.
Looking at the figures above for what the House of Commons would look like if today’s composition, without the Scottish seats, were replicated next year, Labour would not be in government, not even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Would Labour’s electoral chances therefore be damaged by voter awareness that if they were to be voted into power from the the existing United Kingdom constituencies, including Scotland’s, they would be a known short term ‘lame duck’ government because they would not have an achievable majority even in coalition, after 24th March 2016.
Such circumstances would have to impact on their vote in the continuing United Kingdom.
If they needed a coalition, what could they offer to any prospective partner but a name in the history books for one year, before another election would have to be held, which they could not win.
As we have shown in a previous analysis, it is in Labour’s interests, more than any other, that the campaign for Scottish Independence is defeated. If it is not they are finished as a party of government in the continuing United Kingdom for a considerable time.
The pundits in last night programme insisted that this need not be the case – pointing to the fact that Tony Blair could have won two of his three General election victories without the Scottish Labour seats.
We beg to differ from that view. Those were the days when three factors applied that do not apply today.
- The Conservatives were directionless, unconfident and in disarray following the diffident Major years in the aftermath of Thatcher certitude. Today the government they lead is insubstantial but Geoerge Osborne’s managing of the economy out of crisis cannot be overset.
- The country had not woken up – as indeed it never did when it mattered – to the facsimile of leadership that was Tony Blair. In his first two General Election wins, he was still the great unmatchable. Ed Milliband is a much more honest man than Blair but is eminently matchable and almost certainly beatable.
- Labour, in 1997, had not been in power for 18 years – since 1979. It had no remembered negative legacy holding it back. By May 2015, Labour will have been last in power only 5 years previously – and the country is still living with the legacy of the fiscal mismanagement that created the collapse of the financial institutions in 2008.
So, in our differing view, it is inconceivable that Labour could win a General Election for at least a decade following a vote for Scottish independence – and we mean just that. We do not believe that Labour could win the 2015 General Election if Scotland had voted ‘Yes’ next month.
In that decade [and it could take longer], the programme last night suggested that there would be a political rebalancing taking place – redefining ‘the centre’, the ‘left of centre’ and the ‘right of centre’ and seeing how that process left the relative positions of the major parties. How would that pan out? In truth who cares? We need something completely different, much more capable and much less wasteful.
The impact on identity of the loss of the symbols that represent it
The continuing United Kingdom, it was widely agreed by contributors to Andrew Neil’s programme, would face questions over its name; and the redesign of its flag.
Even raising these issues triggers the undermining of the sort of confident assumption of identity that, ironically, pays no normal attention to such symbols.
And if it is ‘No Thanks’?
This too will force reform of the United Kingdom as it is – a process which in our view is long overdue.
A Welsh contributor last night made it clear that if concessions in additional powers were made to a Scotland that had voted to stay with the Union, Wales would be likely to start looking at the lowly constitutional status of its own Assembly. He noted that the First Minister in the Welsh Assembly, Carwyn Jones, has been particularly bullish in his responses to Scotland’s demands, making it clear that, for one thing, Wales would actively object to a currency union with the departing Scotland.
If Scotland votes to stay in the Union, whichever United Kingdom government is elected in May 2015 would be advised immediately to initiate constitutional reform and establish a standing Constitutional Convention. We cannot revisit the expensive and corrosive territory we have been pitchforked into today; and without radical change to the union, we will be back in it.
Last night’s programme ignored almost completely the major issues around constitutional change, even in the event of a vote for independence.
Talking about a House of Commons that divided its working week into two days spent on United Kingdom issues and three days on England issues – as they did – was wildly astray of the complexity of the issue; and forgot that the House of Commons does not work a five day week.
We do not blame the programme for this gap in the issues it confronted. An hour is only an hour and this huge subject was too much to open up in this programme.
But whether the Union remains as it is or whether its membership changes, it would be dangerously short sighted in the extreme not to address this matter fully, responsibly and without delay.
The Neil programme showed its audience that Scotland will not take its decision next month in isolation; that there will be consequences for others; and that those consequences cannot now be said to have been unintended. We know today what those consequences would be.
Those supporting the notion of independence must, before they vote, weigh against the advantages as they see them the consequences for those who can only spectate as we decide, who have been the larger part of a mutually supportive union for three centuries.