Monday, 13 February 2012

Scottish independence: to be or not to be?

Alex Salmond could be toasting with more than a Scotch whiskey sometime in the next few years
 The fervour for celebrating nationhood in the run-up to Burns Night may or may not have been coincidental, but the debate over the future of the United Kingdom ramped up a level in January. David Cameron seemed to have caught many commentators unawares in giving Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond an ultimatum - making it clear that his government would welcome a binding referendum on Scottish independence – and only on Westminster's terms.

Salmond and his Scottish National Party colleagues argue that the Scottish Parliament already has the right to hold a referendum without any interference. Yet Cameron's government has already set itself in conflict with the Holyrood administration. Salmond had previously stated his intention to hold a referendum 'in the second half of the parliament', but Cameron is keen that it be held 'sooner rather than later' – possibly as early as 2013. The government's position can be summarised thus: don't let Alex Salmond get away with breaking up the Union by giving him 1,000 days to make his argument for independence to the people of Scotland. What's more, Cameron's call is for a somewhat simpler affair – a straightforward yes or no rather than asking about the preference for two varying degrees of devolution or independence, which is the SNP's preference.

Publicly, Alex Salmond is portrayed by his opponents as a bully, perhaps in daring to defy Westminster in setting the terms of the debate. Yet, although they might not admit it, many British politicians of all hues secretly admire Salmond, who became Scotland's fourth First Minister in May 2007. They adore the gumption of the man, a formidable parliamentarian and debater who has somehow managed to take both left-wing and right-wing positions, culminating in what the Spectator called 'an extraordinary victory' against eight years of Labour and Liberal Democrat rule in the Scottish parliament. Salmond has managed to steal both the clothes of social democrats while also appealing to conservative tendencies, helping to ensure that the Conservative party itself remains an irrelevance north of the border.

Seeking to get one up on Salmond, it is Cameron who has decided that an urgent debate on the future of the union is needed. And, with little regard for broader constitutional questions, Cameron would like the Union question dealt with once and for all, in order to bolster his own party's credentials as defender of the United Kingdom, and arguably, present a distraction from the government's other troubles. As a result, some have argued that Cameron, rather than Salmond, is playing fast and loose with the make-up of the UK. Little thought has been given to the consequences for England in a UK bereft of Scotland under the current settlement. Independence could, however, provide a resolution of sorts to the so-called West Lothian question, famously posed by the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, whose constituency gave its name to the issue. This particular issue centred around Scottish MPs being able to vote on English matters – such as funding for the NHS – a peculiarity of the British constitution seeing as English MPs have no such powers in Holyrood.

Major constitutional issues aside, support for independence has jumped to 45% in recent weeks and edging ever faster to 50% in favour. With the Scottish question likely to be dealt with in the next three years, attention would inevitably turn next to Wales, itself emboldened with a devolved government although unlikely to survive without its larger neighbour.

Are we nonetheless witnessing the second act in the break-up of the union? As it stands, it could be remarkably easy for Scotland to decide to go its own way. Some Conservative backbenchers seem already resigned to a seemingly inevitable breakaway, with heightened suspicions of the Prime Minister's true intentions only exacerbated by renewed tensions with Eurosceptic backbenchers. Yet if Scottish MPs were to leave Westminster
en masse, it would have a profound impact on the make up of the UK Parliament overall – and with vastly different outcomes for all political parties. As Gerry Hassan noted in the New Statesman, 'many Tories have already given up on Scotland and dream of losing the burden of Labour's 41 seats north of the border'. With the impact of proposed Westminster seat boundary changes taken into account, Labour would lose out regardless. Coupled with the current First Past the Post voting system, the prospect of permanent Conservative rule at Westminster may seem almost certain.

A complete evacuation by Scottish MPs from Westminster would, of course, be the ultimate development. Variants on a theme have included 'devolution max', giving Holyrood the full range of powers over tax but with Scotland asking that defence and foreign affairs remain under the control of Westminster. The SNP has previously also said that it would wish to retain the Queen as head of state, and the pound sterling as currency, meaning that full independence for Scotland with its own tax system, foreign secretary and army may still be some way off.

Regardless of the final settlement, all mainstream party leaders have demonstrated their 'unity over the union' – whatever that means in the current environment. Desperate to not appear anti-union, Labour leader Ed Miliband's position has seemingly reflected the Prime Minister's own: preserve the union at all costs. Yet Scottish nationalism isn't the preserve of one single party and never has been – meaning that the right to self-determination cannot be ignored. The late Labour politician Donald Dewar (the first First Minister of Scotland) had nationalist sympathies but without the ideological zeal of his SNP rivals. Once again, it may well suit Labour to moderate its position given that not all its supporters in Scotland - or those who may vote for the party in the future - will all be quite as positive about the United Kingdom in its current guise as the Labour leader is.

This piece was originally published in Mauritius News in February 2012.

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