When yes means no – for Cameron and Miliband
The Sunday Herald has come out in favour of an independent Scotland. The polls are narrowing. And finally, senior civil servants have been scrambled by Ministers to grasp the constitutional implications of a Yes vote on the 18 September.
The Whitehall machine has hitherto stuck its head in the sand, which is hardly surprising when implications are so huge. Apart from some mischief from CND about the implications for relocating Trident and its successor, the Westminster village has largely crossed its fingers and hoped for a resounding no.
However, slowly and surely there is recognition that Salmond has once again played a long game with great guile. The cross-party opposition, with Labour working alongside the Coalition in the Better Together campaign, has meant there is no alternative vision. Devo Max has been forgotten as the debate polarizes into support for the status quo or support for change.
There is an obvious challenge that the negative rhetoric of Labour, Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats appeals least to those who are struggling in society. The idea that independence could not be worse – and may even be better – plays well. So too does the anti-Conservative, anti-London sentiment so easily harnessed by the Yes campaign.
But the implications of a yes vote are far from insignificant. First, that David Cameron may have to resign. As the Prime Minster of the United Kingdom and, officially at least, the Leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, to have presided over the constitutional biggest territorial break of the British Isles since 1916 would be a humiliation. His judgment and his campaigning acumen would be severely questioned and pollsters and politicos alike recognise he may be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Second, the 2015 General Election- and all future elections – would be changed beyond recognition. Let us for a moment believe the pollsters and that voting intentions stay where they are now (with the exception of UKIP which will likely see its polling bubble burst after the May Euro Elections): Labour is the biggest party and, therefore, forms a coalition with Liberal Democrats.
But what happens one year later when Scotland becomes independent? The nation’s 59 MPs (currently 41 of which are Labour) fall over the West Lothian cliff, and in all likelihood, the Conservatives become the biggest party again and re-establish their coalition with Lib Dems.
Would a flipped coalition government be publicly palatable? Or would there have to be another General Election in 2016? In fact would that even be an option given the legislation for fixed term Parliaments? Would Labour even be able to form a government – coalition or otherwise – if to do so meant relying on Scottish MPs who would be gone the following year? No doubt these are the muddles the Mandarins are musing even now.
One idea I hear being considered is that independence would be brought forward to 2015 – although the logistical challenges may prohibit any speeding up of the process. Another is that there would be no elections north of the border and current Scottish MPs remain in post for the last year of the Union. These – and many other proposed temporary fixes – seem radical, but then the idea of Scotland voting for Independence was seen as inconceivable just a few months ago.
What is certain is that the implications will now start to be seriously considered – and not a moment too soon.