For the most part, the flurry of elections that took place around the UK this month saw a return to business as usual, the reassertion of the status quo. Electoral reform was resoundingly rejected and the Liberal Democrats’ brief venture into electability has ended with the party firmly back in third place. In Scotland however, the 5th May saw politics enter a new era. The Scottish National Party (SNP) now holds a majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament and intends to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. This result is far more than the misplaced patriotism of a small group of kilt-wearing nationalists somewhere north of Newcastle. The debate on independence is only just beginning and it is not as simple as is portrayed by much of the UK media. It is also one which will have profound consequences for all parts of Britain.
Controlling 69 of the Scottish Parliament’s 129 seats, the SNP has become the first party to secure a majority in the chamber’s short history. Blair’s Labour Party pursued devolution as an attempt to contain separatist tendencies. The Scottish Parliament’s proportional electoral system was supposed to stop the SNP ever gaining a majority. Instead, devolution has been the lifeblood of the SNP, giving them an invaluable political platform. The party whose unifying goal is Scottish independence has risen from obscurity, to opposition, to minority and now majority government. To the casual observer it must seem only a matter of time before the final step to independence is taken.
But it’s not as simple as that. While support for the SNP has risen, support for independence remains stubbornly below 30%. A vote for the SNP is not necessarily a vote for independence. In recent years, the SNP has moved into the mainstream, securing the support of Scottish business leaders (yes, they do exist) and dropping its anti-English rhetoric. For many, the SNP frontbench are simply supported as the most competent politicians in parliament. The recent election campaign was fought on jobs, the economy and spending priorities; the issue of independence has only come to the fore after the surprise election result.
So don’t expect to see border guards on Hadrian’s Wall just yet. While the Scottish people have given their backing to an overtly nationalist party, they are yet to be convinced by the case for independence. There is also little clarity about what independence would entail. We are told the Queen would be invited to remain Scotland’s head of state, but would Scotland keep the pound? Would it have its own military?
In the past week, key SNP figures have indicated that the party may look to secure ‘independence lite’ where social security and defence are coordinated at a UK level. SNP leader Alex Salmond is a wily political operator who has accepted that gradualism is the best means of getting more power for Scotland. He will not risk losing a referendum by presenting a separatist option before an unwilling electorate. Many questions about Scotland’s constitutional future remain without plausible answers. The suggestion that Scotland should have a different currency to its main trading partner, England, is surely ridiculous given the amount of movement between the countries. But remaining in a monetary union would require some means by which the Bank of England would be directly accountable to Scotland. The recent troubles experienced by the Eurozone have also demonstrated that fiscal coordination is a must for countries living under the same monetary policy regime. Some form of federalism seems the only realistic solution.
Whatever the nature of the ‘independence’ option put before the Scottish people, some sort of formalised synchronisation will have to exist at a UK-wide level. This means that the ‘good riddance’ attitude towards the issue of Scottish independence expressed by some of the English media in recent days misses the mark. For even the most cynical English observer, independence will end up being about more than getting rid of the burden of the ‘sponging Scots’. Aside from the fact that an independent Scotland would leave the UK without a place to house Trident and end Labour’s ability to win a parliamentary majority at Westminster, any independence settlement would open a can of constitutional worms for the whole of the UK. Some sort of chamber with Scottish representation will have to exist to make decisions in those areas, such as defence and social security, where Scotland and the UK set coordinated policy. But this UK wide body could not reasonably also be the English legislature. The issue of an English Parliament would again raise its head.
Keeping the status quo is not an option either. Legislation currently making its way through the UK Parliament will give Scotland new powers over income tax with corporation tax control possibly to follow. As Scottish and English taxation and spending priorities diverge, the injustice of Scottish MPs in Westminster voting on solely English matters will only increase. At some point, the so called ‘West Lothian question’ will demand an answer. It is hard to see a possible future scenario where there is not significant change to the constitutional powers of the House of Commons.
The election of the SNP takes Scotland and the whole of the UK into uncharted territory. There are many questions about how an independent Scotland would actually work which will now be debated and are as yet without an obvious answer. What is clear is that the binary view of the nature of Scotland’s future options is naïve. A lack of concern amongst the English population also shows a lack of appreciation of the likely significance for the whole UK of the SNP’s success. Though the AV vote failed, the 5th May 2011 may yet turn out to be the day that the UK headed towards a new constitutional future.