Things will never be the same again: reflections on the Scottish referendum

Whatever the outcome of today’s referendum of 3.5 million voters in Scotland, Friday 19 September 2014 will be an epoch-making day in the politics of these islands. For once, the hyperbole is justified.

If the vote is ‘Yes’, we will embark on a constitutional process that will unstitch the fabric of a 411-year-old ‘Union of the Crowns’ – created when James VI of Scotland and I of England ended hundreds of years of enmity by uniting the Kingdoms of England and Scotland to form Great Britain.

We will embark on a political, economic and social process lasting well into the 2020s, which will unpick the 307-year-old union of two States and two Parliaments that followed the Act of Union in 1707.

The Prime Minister’s position would come into question. After all, he heads a party whose modern history was built on the merging of Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists after they left Gladstone’s Liberals over proposed Home Rule for Ireland in 1886, thus creating the Conservative and Unionist Party. David Cameron would be the Prime Minister who ‘lost’ Scotland. Against all historic precedent, his position could prove untenable.

Ed Miliband’s task as leader of the Labour Party would be daunting for two reasons. First, the electoral arithmetic would be far more difficult. In a new, post-independence House of Commons, 296 MPs would be needed to command a majority and form a government. The loss of Labour’s current 41 MPs in Scotland would make that task challenging, although not impossible.

If we run previous elections through the prism of a parliament comprised only of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Labour would have won its landslides in 1945, 1997 and 2001, and its sizeable victory in 1966. But Harold Wilson would not have won in 1964, and Edward Heath would have commanded the largest party in the ‘who governs Britain?’ election of 1974. Tony Blair’s 2005 election victory would have been tighter. Equally significantly, John Major would have had a comfortable majority in 1992 and David Cameron would have secured a small majority in 2010, thus obviating the need to create the coalition.

Of course, the successor United Kingdom’s politics would be radically different. We cannot assume that the Conservatives would not be as dramatically weakened as Labour – perhaps through the paradoxical strengthening of an English nationalist-led UKIP. The second challenge for Miliband would result from a major shift in the personnel and ideological balance of the Labour Party through the loss of the radical edge of Scottish Labour members and the loss of heavyweight politicians who are currently MPs for Scottish constituencies, such as Gordon Brown, Douglas Alexander and Alistair Darling.

The same can be said for Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who would be weakened as a possible coalition partner into the future, as a result of the loss of Scottish members – the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, being a prime example.
If the vote is ‘No’, it will not be politics as usual. In the heat of the referendum battle, all the Westminster parties have promised a further extension of the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the maintenance of the Barnett funding formula. A traditional British incremental cobbling together of a package for Scotland will not be enough.

What is needed – and appears to have growing public support – is a genuine process of constitutional reform, creating a more recognisable federal structure and including all the parts of the Union. This requires a rebirth of the civic dynamism of the great cities of England – Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle.

Unlike London, Wales, and Northern Ireland, England does not currently have the political, institutional and cultural mechanisms to take on the responsibility and be accountable for a dramatic extension of new powers and revenue-raising prerogatives. The challenge for local politicians, officials, parties, pressure groups, civic society and the great universities in these potential new city regions would be to create a new form of politics to match expectations.

The lasting legacies of the Scottish referendum may yet be a harnessing of the passion, enthusiasm and interest exhibited in Scotland about how we are governed, in addition to fundamental, inclusive constitutional change.

Colin Thain
Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham