Monday, 7 April 2014

So what happens if Scotland votes 'yes'?

Narrowing polls in the Scottish referendum campaign are not only causing grave concern in the 'No' camp - specifically its Labour components. They are also causing constitutional scholars and lawyers to begin a long period of head-scratching that could take us well into 2016 - and beyond.

A 'yes' vote is now quite possible - not yet strongly likely, but certainly possible. Gamblers now put the chance of Scots independence at something like 25 per cent. Given First Minister Alex Salmond's campaigning skills and the zeal of 'yes' campaigners at the grassroots, this blog would put the chances of an independent Scotland rather higher - at something like 30 to 40 per cent. Be that as it may, the headline is this: the Scots may go their own way.

This blog opposes such a move, partly because it could mean just about anything in practice, and partly out of a (perhaps idealised) sense of Britishness that is bigger and greater than its constituent parts. But that's irrelevant to what will happen if such an eventuality does have to be faced.

Start with this: if Labour has won a small majority, or is the largest party, after the General Election of 2015, they'll still have to form the UK government. The result of that vote hangs in the balance at the moment, but Labour will probably do quite well, and they have a good shot (at least) of retaining power at the first time of asking. But they'll almost certainly not win a plurality of the seats outside Scotland, a country that at that stage will still be nowhere near the exit door, and pretty much everyone except the Scottish National Party believes that it may take some time (three or four years, putting independence back to 2017 or even 2018) to actully finish building the new state. So there'd be a weak Labour government at Westminster, probably reliant for its legislation on Scottish MPs' votes.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is already having to fight off (self-interested) Conservative calls for Scots MPs to be excluded from the Commons if that country has already voted to break away. Such ideas are ridiculous. Scotland will remain part of the UK until its actual independence day, and its Members of Parliament will have every right to sit and vote to represent their constituents and their interests. But it shows us where the next Parliament will be going: every single thing that a Labour govenrment did would be opposed in the last ditch from Opposition leaders claiming that they had no moral or political right to do anything. It'll be a real mess, but it'll have to be faced.

And then? Well, on the day Scotland did leave, perhaps in the autumn of 2017, there'd probably have to be a second General Election. The 40 or so Scots Labour MPs having left, the Government would probably lack any ability to get its legislation through. It might be that they could then call on the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition; but that party might be so shrunken and traumatised by its experiences of government between 2010 and 2015 that it'd be in no position to help Labour out. So any govenrment led by the current leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, may well be a pretty short-lived one indeed: either a straight swap for the Conservative leader (should fixed-term legislation remain in place), or more likely another General Election just two years after the first, would be the only answer.

It's a confusing prospect, and it depends on many 'what ifs'. But there are quite a few scenarios in which this country is heading for a constitutional crisis of huge proportions. The uncharted waters are out there, and they're pretty cold, and pretty deep.

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