Is There a Way Out of Here?

The Westminster parties have put themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they fulfil the more extravagant pre-referendum pledges made by them or on their behalf, they will incur the wrath of the xenophobic part of the English electorate – a minority, no doubt, but a very important minority to the Tories and and Labour when they both have a chance of winning the next general election, and UKIP is waiting to profit from disaffected Labour and Tory voters. If they try to honour their pledges, but are foiled by their own back-benchers, they will antagonise people in both England (for trying) and Scotland (for failing).

If Westminster does not devolve significant new powers to the Scottish Parliament, and even more so if Westminster cuts the Scottish block grant, they will gain brownie points in England, but in Scotland there is likely to be a marked increase in support for independence as many No voters, especially those who were conned by newspaper headlines into thinking that they were voting for devo-max, realise that they have been badly let down.

Unionist politicians do not want further powers for the Scottish Parliament; the more autonomy Scotland has, the smaller, and less daunting, the leap to full independence will seem. Given that, and the pressure they face from a part of the English electorate, I expect that Westminster will try a delaying action, referring everything to the constitutional convention which has already been proposed for next year, in the hope that interest in Scottish independence will have faded somewhat by the time the convention comes to any conclusions. Maybe the end result will be a few almost meaningless extensions to existing powers, perhaps with a significant price attached such as a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. Alternatively, if anything which, by some stretch of the imagination, could be described as devo-max is offered, it will be linked to substantial constitutional changes for the UK which will have to be ratified in a UK-wide referendum, and which may well be rejected by voters, especially in England.

What might happen if the pre-referendum pledges are not met? Of course, there are a number of factors which will affect the level of support for independence, such as the outcome of the next general election, and which cannot be predicted with any confidence, but for the sake of argument I am going to assume that, within about a year, opinion polls will start showing a clear majority in favour of independence as No voters who hoped for devo-max lose patience with Westminster.

Independence is clearly a constitutional matter, and constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster. That is one reason why securing the Edinburgh Agreement was highly desirable; it removed the possibility that someone might raise a legal challenge to the referendum. Westminster would like to consider the issue of independence as settled for at least the next twenty years or so, and thus the chances of a successor to the Edinburgh Agreement within the next few years look very slim. Any referendum which is held within the next few years would probably only be a consultative referendum, which Westminster would be free to ignore. It is likely, however, that Westminster would seek to block any referendum completely, and I expect that they would succeed.

However, there is an alternative to a referendum. Alex Salmond has raised the possibility that the election for the Scottish Parliament could be turned into a plebiscite for Scottish independence, if the SNP (or better, an alliance of independence parties) were to announce that they would treat a majority vote for them as a mandate for independence. This would, of course, be a gamble. There are some people who are willing to vote for the SNP, but do not back independence; most of these would presumably not vote for the SNP if that meant they were also voting for independence. On the other hand, there would be people who would normally vote for a unionist party even though they support independence, and some of these would be prepared to vote SNP for the sake of independence. Which of these two groups would be bigger? Presumably the SNP would commission opinion polls to assess this question very carefully before deciding whether to go down this route.

The advantage of using an election as a plebiscite is that there is no obvious way for Westminster to block it, short of trying to shut down the Scottish Parliament. The disadvantage with this approach, which it shares with a consultative referendum, is that, even if it provides a mandate for independence, Westminster might well simply refuse to negotiate an independence settlement. If they did just dig in their heels, there would only be one way left for Scotland to gain independence, and that is through a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

In the worst case, the UK might use force to maintain their control over Scotland. Even if they did not, a UDI would certainly be messy, it would not be respectable, and it even has a whiff of illegality about it. International recognition of Scotland as an independent state could take some time. There would be no chance of Scotland being treated as a successor state to the UK; the rUK would definitely be the sole continuator state and Scotland would be a new state, with no right to share the assets of the UK, but no part of the crippling UK national debt. Scotland’s relationship with the EU would be difficult, to say the least.

A few people commenting on blogs seem to think we should not even talk about a UDI. I do not agree. Obviously, a UDI should only be used as a very last resort, and only if there is a clear mandate for independence; it is in effect the nuclear option. Advocates of nuclear weapons argue that their value is as a threat of mutually assured destruction (appropriately, MAD); if the cost of a war is too high, they say, then there will be no war. Similarly, UDI must be the independence movement’s nuclear weapon. A UDI may be costly for Scotland in the short term, but it will also be costly for the rUK. If they try to repress it, the UK’s international status and its image as a democratic nation will be badly tarnished. More importantly, confidence in the UK’s stability and reliability will drop amongst its creditors. If the UDI is allowed to go ahead, the loss of oil reserves, whisky exports and so on could easily push the rUK into another financial crisis.

The possibility of a UDI should make a negotiated independence a relatively more attractive proposition. It does not have to be raised stridently or frequently, but it should be there in the background. It was only the possibility of independence that forced the Unionists to consider more devolution, according to Andrew Neil, and so it is likely that only the possibility of a UDI that could persuade them to negotiate Scottish independence.

If the independence movement were to renounce any possibility of a UDI under any circumstances, it is my belief that Scotland will not become independent, or get devo-max or even devo-just-a-little-bit-more. Ruling out a UDI would be an unconditional surrender to the Unionists. Without that threat, the independence movement would have little leverage. Scotland could elect mostly pro-independence MPs, who could then make as much a nuisance of themselves as possible at Westminster, but probably the Unionist parties would gang up to cut the number of Scottish MPs and to reduce their status, in the name of solving the West Lothian Question. The only other option would be to rely on Westminster’s sense of decency and fair play, but the part that Unionist MPs have played in the No campaign suggests that is virtually non-existent.

There is, however, one situation in which another referendum might just be possible, and that is if the UK holds a referendum on EU membership. Presumably the EU would not be keen on Scottish oilfields leaving the EU. Perhaps Westminster could be persuaded through the EU to include a second question on ballot papers in Scotland, asking “If the UK leaves the EU, should Scotland become independent?” Alternatively, if the UK as a whole votes to leave the EU but Scotland votes to stay in, the EU might then be more inclined to back a Scottish UDI.

If the No campaign had been reasonably decent and honest, instead of relying on threats, lies and promises which will probably not be kept, it would have easier for supporters of independence to have accepted a No vote. However, it is much more likely that the outcome would have been a Yes vote, and the two governments could have negotiated a Velvet Divorce like that of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Scotland and the rUK could have been friendly neighbours, sharing common institutions wherever it would be mutually advantageous. Now we are stuck in a union which is becoming increasingly acrimonious, and the eventual divorce is likely to be much messier than it should have been.

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