Alba and Independence – Part 2
British politics has emerged from the doldrums thanks to the referendum on independence. In my previous post I came down marginally against the idea of full blown independence – head over heart – I had two reasons one of which was the idea that we live in an age of instant communication, one where our similarities as human beings far outweigh our differences and where, as technology advances and the world shrinks, we should perhaps start to outgrow the idea of nation and tribe.
The second, unexplored reason was that I think a Yes vote would have triggered too abrupt a change for it to be anything other than a horrendously rocky road for an independent Scotland. The dust has apparently settled on the question of Scotland and the future of the United Kingdom in the sense that it has slipped out of the news. This does not mean it has gone away. Anyone who believes that this has settled the question of Scottish independence once and for all would be wholly delusional (that probably includes the leaders of the three main political parties in Westminster)
The Scottish referendum campaign itself, the huge turnout and the result are a reflection of a profound wish among the ordinary people of these isles for a change in the governance of the country. An understanding that the present system is not fit for purpose that has driven voters to stay away from the ballot box in ever-increasing numbers. What drew them out in Scotland was the feeling that this time their voice would be heard, they could make a difference.
I have a long enough memory to recall what happened after the first votes on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1979. Wales gave a resounding ‘No’ 80% voted against and only 20% voted in favour of devolution. It was said back then that had settled the question for a lifetime. By 1999, a mere twenty years later, Wales had its own Assembly and devolved powers. Scotland in 1979 voted narrowly in favour of devolution but fell short of the 40% of the electorate voting ‘Yes’ required under the terms at the time. Devolution and the march towards a federal UK is an idea that has been steadily gathering momentum for the last forty years.
The Westminster Cabal having shored up the ‘No’ campaign with promises of greater powers for the Scottish Parliament in the event of a majority against independence (the very same ‘Devo Max’ that they refused to put on the ballot in the first place) have now linked it to the so-called ‘West Lothian’ question; a constitutional issue that has bedevilled British politics since it was first raised by William Gladstone in 1886 in a speech on Irish Home Rule, of course in its original form the constitutional question was resolved in the main part by Irish independence. Northern Ireland MPs ‘Unionists’ to man voted at Westminster on all issues including those that only affected England. The fact they were only a handful and that initially at least they were part of the Conservative party (Conservative and Unionist as it used to label itself) meant that in time honoured British tradition the question was swept under the carpet until it was resurrected by Tam Dalyell who was the MP for West Lothian in a debate on devolution in 1977.
By linking devo-max for Scotland to the issue of more devolved powers for an ‘English’ Parliament Cameron may believe he’s cleverly defusing the situation and that the whole thing can drift along gently in the background at least until after the 2015 general election. If he this is his thinking he is so, so, wrong and he will reap the whirlwind of dissatisfaction at the ballot box (the Liberal democrats are already a political corpse twitching on the end of the coalition line so it won’t make much difference to them) Membership of the SNP has rocketed since the 18th of September, Green Party membership has increased by 20% in England and Wales, Plaid is resurgent and then of course there is UKIP. Love them or hate them and quite frankly I hate them, they have touched a chord with voters. They are an anti-establishment party (at least that is how Farrage cleverly peddles them to the public; they are actually a nasty isolationist right wing group)
What devo max will do will be to ease Scotland’s path out of the Union in a more gradual and probably successful manner than a ‘Yes’ vote on the eighteenth. The Catalans, the Basques and others may find what happens next in Britain even more interesting than a ‘Yes’ vote would have been. Wales is raging against the promise to keep the Barnet formula (without boring everyone this is a financial settlement that benefits Scotland but has long been a source of Welsh dissatisfaction since it penalises that region). Cornwall is ramping up demands for more autonomy, the tiny bit of England that still has Celtic roots and precariously its own Brythonic language, has long felt as distanced from Westminster as many parts of Scotland.
The unionist knicker elastic has snapped. How long Westminster can prevent its patriotic underpants ending up round its collective ankles will depend on how well they understand that change has to come and come quickly. It is possibly something Cameron may ruefully reflect on as he tries to keep the lid on a bubbling cauldron of regional dissatisfaction in England, increasingly autonomous and independent minded Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland that Margaret Thatcher and her destruction of the old ‘one nation’ ideal gave a huge impetus to the idea of devolution. Once you start down a road who knows where it will take you and the law of unintended consequences is beautiful to behold in its unfolding possibilities.
What comes next will depend on whether Westminster changes its spots enough. If it doesn’t and it tries to sell Scotland short independence will be back on the agenda in no time at all among howls of outrage from all over a disunited kingdom.