Another Country?

On 18th September 2014, the Scots go to the polls to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country. I hope that they vote to stay part of the UK. Whichever way they go, there ought to be a General Election in the UK. But there won’t be.

I’m not Scottish, but have some affinity for Scotland. When my father first came to the UK at the beginning of the 60s, it was to the Clyde shipyards where he did his apprenticeship and to lodgings in Paisley. Even now, more than fifty years on, there’s a distinct Scot’s “Helloooo” to his telephone answering. The first house my parents bought was in Kilwinning in Ayrshire when I was a baby and I lived there until I was 3. It is only in recent years that we have stopped getting Christmas cards from our old neighbours or indeed my Dad’s first landlady and that is down to some of them having passed away and my Mum’s numerous house moves in the past decade. My earliest memories are of boat trips on Loch Lomond (which I called Loch Mondo, which I still think is a better name) and playing on the beach at Saltcoats, aptly named as every photo from that time, even if labelled “August ’74” has everyone in thick jumpers, wellies and overcoats. I liked going up to visit my sister when she started a PhD at Glasgow University (although in a murmur of what has come since those early post-devolution days, it did seem odd that she and the other students who had come from England were categorised as “International Students”). One of the nice parts of the job that first took me up to Leeds was that I had responsibility for my practice area in Scotland too and got to go up to Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly. And just this year I’ve had a great time skiing in Glenshee and going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

For me, Scotland has always in my lifetime had a very distinct identity of its own and clearly has had its own ways of doing many things. At the same time, while feeling like another country in a way which relatively nearby English places like Newcastle and Carlisle do not, it was part of the Britain I felt part of in a way that Ireland clearly isn’t, having been independent for a long time and having fought “us” bloodily for it. I can understand the Team Scotland v Team Westminster rhetoric of the campaign because the reason we moved from Scotland was that my parents didn’t want me to be disadvantaged by being a minority within a minority as Indian and Scots so they moved to England and I got the “Team Westminster” RP accent and education. But this does also show that the divide is false because in a united UK, you can move around and you can take your identity from the part you want. My Dad started as an honorary Scotsman (he must have stood out as a small Indian man amongst the welders and stood behind the goal at Ibrox watching his friend and former fellow apprentice making his debut for Glasgow Rangers) and moved, just as (accent aside) I feel an honorary Yorkshireman having spent 10 years in Leeds. That is just one of the things that a Yes vote would bring in, perhaps slowly, but surely enough.

However, I can understand emotionally why Scots might want independence and even that it might be worth doing despite the potential hardship that may be suffered in relation to using the pound sterling without UK agreement, needing to wait to be admitted to the EU (it is hard to see how countries like Spain which have their own secessionist regions and nations could support Scotland becoming an EU Member State while denying nationhood to Catalonia). Those arguing for UK exit from the EU also tend to believe it would be worth doing even if it had short to medium term adverse effects (although they generally make it sound as if there would be immediate benefits to outweigh these). As an aside, it is curious that when the UK and IP parts of UKIP come together they seem to result in denying the validity of Scotland’s claim to independence from the UK while wanting the UK to be independent from the EU.

What I don’t understand or agree with is the sudden rush over the past couple of weeks, apparently led by Gordon Brown, to offer the Scots a huge increase in powers and preservation of advantageous UK tax funding which mean that Scots per capita get 20% more public funding than other parts of the UK, if they vote to stay in the UK. There is certainly a case for a new settlement, and one which looks fairly at the claims of the other nations in the UK including England and the regions. The success of Scots devolution, the London Mayor and Welsh devolution (this last is successful only in terms of having provided strong local powers – that those elected to wield them have been terrible at so doing doesn’t matter, they can be defeated) and the high public engagement with the independence campaign make it hard to deny a similarly careful look at what everyone needs throughout the UK.

However, none of this, not the “Vow” to Scotland, nor the proper role of Scots MPs in Westminster (the “West Lothian” question), nor even the arrangements for the rest of the UK, has any democratic mandate in the UK. If there is a majority for independence, it is arguable that the Prime Minister should resign as the head of a pro-Union party and government (that perhaps being the distinction from the PM at the time of Irish Independence, another David, Lloyd George, who was not from the Unionist part of the Liberal Party and who did not resign when last the UK lost a constituent member). But, from a practical perspective, as the three main parties have been aligned on the main approaches to post-independence relations with Scotland, it would not be inconceivable that Cameron could start the exit negotiations and run them through to the scheduled General Election in May 2015 with a smooth handover should he lose that election. The one urgent change that would be required would be to pass legislation to limit MPs elected now and in 2015 for Scots constituencies from voting on matters other than those relating solely and specifically to Scotland.

However, the range of promises being made to Scotland if it decides to stay in the UK are a different matter. They involve large changes which were not in any party’s manifesto and which will have had no public scrutiny, particularly if, as suggested, they are rushed through ahead of the 2015 election. The opportunities and proposals for a broader constitutional resettlement and localisation can’t just be magicked up in a few months. The overall package of changes surely has to be mandated and this can only be done by dissolving Parliament and calling an election in which all the parties can set out what they propose to do for the UK as a whole, having retained Scotland within it. There are procedural difficulties due to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which limit Prime Ministerial discretion over calling elections, but these could be overcome by agreement (for example, in the circumstances, there could be an unopposed motion of no confidence). It wouldn’t have to be immediate, but it should be before May 2015 and before any attempt is made to have a new Scotland Act granting further devolution to Scotland without doing anything for the rest of the UK of which Scotland will be a long term part.

But I’m not holding my breath. There seems to be no sign that this will happen and ultimately that would be the thing which meant that both Alex Salmond’s Team Scotland and Dave, Ed and Nick’s Team Westminster won with the losers being everyone else.


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