The aftermath of the referendum has been won by Scotland’s Nationalists. This could have serious long-term consequences which could still see Scotland go it alone. Pro-union parties will need to provide a devo-max package that can placate enough Scots and not create a constitutional quagmire. This will be a tough needle to thread.
Promises must be kept
The Better Together campaign, and associated parties, made too many vague, grand promises. Plus, the details of these ‘promises’ were never made explicit and the SNP are now keen to fill in the blanks, controlling post-Referendum politics in the process. If the SNP can convince Scots that the version of devolution promised was ‘X’, when something closer to ‘Y’ is more realistic, then anything falling short of this opens the Westminster parties to a broken promises charge that could yet see a new clamour for independence.
This is what gives the defeated nationalists their new sense of purpose: To step into this vacuum and define what these promises are even though they weren’t the ones to make them. The objective would be to achieve a version of devo-max that will be constitutionally unstable, or at least – without them pretending to be constitutional scholars – one unacceptable in the eyes of the English public. If Scotland’s nationalists achieve a version of devo-max that stirs the English political pot, they might yet force new questions of the United Kingdom’s constitutional viability. If, again, nationalists don’t achieve what they want, they’ll likely make a successful case to Scots that promises had been broken.
Cameron saw this early. The potential of a new flank opening up for UKIP to attack him from his right. Alongside Europe and immigration he will now have new ‘English patriotism – English democracy’ credentials to furnish and defend from UKIP demands. He didn’t waste anytime in stepping on to this territory with one big English Tory foot; trotting out the old ‘English votes for English MPs’ maxim the very day after the referendum. This new devolution politics is one that will pit England and Scotland against each other. Cameron is too desperate to care. Miliband is too (?) to make clear Labour’s proposals. We still don’t know if Labour favour the Scottish Conservative Party proposals (all income tax is devolved) or if they’re sticking with their original plans. It really is all up in the air. So, If the SNP cannot take independence for themselves through a referendum, why not get angry English voters to give it to them? Even this is a little far-fetched for some (and it shouldn’t be), SNP tactics to disturb English politics will at least make them feel good, and certainly may force concessions on a final devo-max settlement.
Neverendum and the pivotal role of Scottish Labour?
Of course, another referendum would have to take place before this could happen. But contrary to early thoughts that this would put the independence question to bed for a few generations it has become clear that that constitutional questions being raised by the spectre of devo-max are going to become a serious concern to English voters. It has already caused angry disagreement between the parties. In terms of Scottish politics however the SNP need two things to happen to force another referendum. One: convince Scots that the version of devo-max offered to them is too weak and represents a ‘broken promise’. Two: win another outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.
What are the chances of the SNP winning another outright majority in Holyrood? In it is not recognised a great deal in England, but Scottish Labour mucked up big time in 2011 in terms of election organisation, handing the SNP a majority that is supposed to be rare in PR systems. The Scottish Parliament is elected on a PR ‘top-up’ system comprising of a constituency ballot and a regional list ballot. The SNP became the largest (but not majority) party in the 2007 because it played the regional list side of the vote well. The same tactic was used in 2011 but the SNP romped the constituency ballot too. Labour got crushed in 2011 because they were too ignorant/arrogant/stupid to give the regional list the light of day. This is not a mistake they will make again, especially given that this is as good an opportunity as any for them to obtain MSPs. Given this, isn’t it very likely the SNP will lose their majority? Even if they remain the largest party (as in 2007)?.
A number of recent developments complicate this potential scenario. One: membership of the pro-independence parties has exploded since the referendum defeat, although it is not likely that these new SNP and Scottish Green members voted ‘NO’ on September 18th it should offer a much stronger ground operation at election time if these new members maintain their new-found partisan commitment into 2016. There are major questions too as to where Liberal Democrat votes will go in 2016. In 2011 Scottish Parliament elections it did appear that these angry ex-liberal voters switched to the SNP and not Labour as has been the case in English local and European elections since 2010. With the willingness of Scottish voters to ‘split tickets’ and vote Labour for UK elections and SNP for Holyrood elections thrown in too, we are presented with a number of different currents cutting across each other. Of course we have two years until then, a UK general election next year and whole new phase of West Lothian politics to bear fruit. But by 2016 if the SNP are still in charge of this debate the spectre of Scottish independence will not go away.