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09 September 2014

Scottish Independence: A Defining Moment For England, Too

If Scotland votes for independence, English nationalism could be unleashed – and politicians of all parties would pay the price

An opinion poll published on Sunday indicates that the Union between Scotland and England might come to an end on September 18. That would, of course, involve radical change for Scotland. But what would it mean for the rest of the United Kingdom?

The most obvious symbol of the unity of the United Kingdom is the Queen. On the occasion of her Silver Jubilee in 1977, when devolution appeared to be in the offing, she referred to Scottish aspirations in her reply to addresses from both Houses of Parliament. “I number kings and queens of England and of Scotland, and princes of Wales, among my ancestors,” she declared, “and so I can readily understand these aspirations. But I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which Union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of the United Kingdom.” That was widely perceived as a warning to those who sought to break up the realm. 

The Queen has made no similar pronouncements during the referendum debate. Newspaper reports speculate that she is distressed at the prospect of break-up. But, constitutionally, there is nothing she can do to prevent it. For she can speak and act only on the advice of her United Kingdom ministers.

It is possible, but unlikely, that David Cameron would ask her to make a speech in favour of the unity of the kingdom. She would be loath to do this, since the leitmotif of her reign has been a determination to avoid being drawn into political controversy. It is only on that basis that she can remain queen of all of her people, rather than queen of those who happen to hold a particular political view. 

Moreover, if Scotland were to become independent, it proposes to retain the monarchy, and the Queen would not want to antagonise the rulers of her new kingdom. The likelihood, therefore, is that Her Majesty, like the rest of us, will suffer in silence until the referendum is over.

But, if there were a Yes vote, the rest of Britain would be unlikely to suffer in silence. There would likely be outrage against the politicians who have so mismanaged the campaign as to dissipate the 60-40 No lead of a month ago.

The most obvious scapegoat would be the Prime Minister. It is he who would be blamed for allowing the pro-independence bandwagon to gather momentum, rather than calling a referendum immediately after the SNP victory at Holyrood in 2011; for not insisting upon a devo-max option in the referendum; and for the wording of the question – “Should Scotland become an independent country?” rather than “Do you want Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom?”

Some have argued that his credibility would be so damaged that he could not continue. But his resignation would solve little, for George Osborne, the most likely replacement, would be perceived as equally complicit. Mr Cameron, therefore, would probably stagger on, but his credibility would be gravely diminished, and he would be landed, however unfairly, with the soubriquet of “the Prime Minister who lost Scotland”. He would become a political cripple.

But, whoever is prime minister, it would be difficult for a ministry that had lost so much credibility to represent the rest of the United Kingdom effectively in the post-referendum negotiations with the Scots. The Government might be pushed into calling an early general election so that a fresh administration could be chosen, one that would be in a stronger position to negotiate; or the Coalition could disintegrate, forcing an early election.

But, in the next parliament, whether chosen this year or next, the 59 Scottish MPs would be temporary tenants whose residence would end in March 2016, Alex Salmond’s deadline for independence. If, therefore, a Labour government were to be elected, dependent on Scottish votes, the political colour of the government of what remains of the United Kingdom would also alter in 2016. Perhaps another general election would be needed at that point, the first in the new United Kingdom without Scotland. Two general elections in such close proximity might excite the political commentators. They would be unlikely to make for economic stability.

The conventional wisdom is that Scotland’s exit would make it more difficult for Labour to form a government. But this should not be exaggerated. The only elections where the vote in Scotland affected the colour of the British government were in three tight parliaments – 1964, when Labour had a majority of three; February 1974, a hung parliament; and October 1974, when Labour had a majority of five. In every other election, the outcome would have been the same without Scotland. Today, Scotland’s exit would mean that Labour would need a swing of a further 1 per cent to form a government – annoying but not unmanageable.

But, of course, a Yes vote would damage Ed Miliband’s credibility at least as much as Mr Cameron’s. Scotland, after all, is a Labour stronghold, and most of the key figures in the No campaign have been Labour grandees. If there have been errors in the campaign, these are as much the responsibility of Labour as of the Conservatives. 

Labour, as the majority party in Scotland, would, in normal circumstances, have been expected to get out its vote in the crucial central belt where most electors live. But, having so many safe seats in Glasgow and its environs, Labour will be accused of having succumbed to a culture of entitlement, of taking its voters for granted, and allowing the machine to get rusty. An inquest into Labour’s failure would have to ask whether the party machine has got equally rusty in its safe seats in the conurbations of the Midlands and the North, some of which appear ripe for a Ukip takeover.

The truth is that a Yes vote would discredit the British political class, just as the expenses scandal did. The vast majority of English voters, many of whom have relatives in Scotland, would bitterly regret the loss of Scotland and would blame the politicians as a whole, not just those of one particular party. The main beneficiary, therefore, would be the party whose raison d’être is opposition to the political class: Ukip, a party that appeals to a sense of Englishness rather than Britishness.

Englishness has always been difficult to define. In his novel The Tragic Muse, Henry James makes his hero feel “the sense of England – a sort of apprehended revelation of his country” which “laid on him a hand that was too ghostly to press, and yet somehow too urgent to be light”. In the event of a Scottish exit, Englishness is likely to become rather less ghostly and somewhat more urgent. A Scottish exit might well unleash the hitherto slumbering force of English nationalism.

That could make life difficult for an independent Scotland. Much of what Mr Salmond hopes for in the proposed post-independence negotiations, such as currency union and his ill-defined “social union”, depend crucially on English goodwill. Such goodwill might be a commodity in distinctly short supply if Scotland votes Yes on September 18.

For the most likely long-term effect of a Scottish Yes vote is a swing to an English nationalist government in the rest of the United Kingdom, a government determined to drive a hard bargain with Scotland in the post-independence negotiations under the tight timetable that Mr Salmond proposes – precisely the opposite to the prospectus the separatists are offering. And there is a Chinese saying to the effect that the man with the tightest timetable also needs the deepest pocket.

The odds still remain in favour of a No victory. But a Yes vote would have seismic consequences for England as well as for Scotland. 

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