Beginning the UK end-game

28 Sep 12
Iain Macwhirter

Alex Salmond’s stop-start independence referendum to be held in 2014 will change the shape of the UK irrevocably, whatever the result  

So it appears that there will, after all, be a referendum on independence for Scotland and it will be binding.

There had been doubts over the summer about whether Scotland’s date with destiny would happen at all. Some MPs in Westminster had begun to suspect that First Minister Alex Salmond was running cool on the idea – since the polls have been saying that he would lose – and intended to scuttle the project and blame London. But Salmond demonstrated his seriousness by appointing his most valued ministerial colleague, the deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, as cabinet secretary with responsibility for the referendum.

Agreement had to be reached by early October if a Section 30 order was to be passed in Westminster in time to give the Scottish Parliament the legal authority to hold a binding referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that he would only authorise this if Salmond agreed to hold a referendum with one straight question and no second-best options on the ballot paper offering ‘devolution max’. A deal was struck. The one question will be put on or around October 2014, as Salmond always intended, so both sides can claim victory.

We’ve been living with the will-they-won’t-they referendum for so long now that we have tended to forget how remarkable this is. The UK government has effectively held a gun to its head, and placed Scottish fingers on the trigger. In two years time, one of the most successful unions in history, the United Kingdom, could be no more. For three hundred years, Scots and English have stood together, in war and peace, and mutually prospered. Now they may be about to go their own separate ways.

The opinion polls suggest that the independence option will lose, as only a third of Scots voters say they want to leave the UK. But the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign is increasingly confident that many of the Scots (about 40% in polls) who say they want a parliament with more powers within the UK will switch to independence. Salmond is arguing that the only way Scots can achieve ‘devolution max’, since it will not be on the ballot paper, is to vote for independence.

The Scottish National Party has been moderating its tone on independence and insisting that the Queen, the pound sterling, the Bank of England and Nato membership will continue if Scots vote yes. In short, they will be voting, not to leave the UK, but to create a better, more equal union. Perhaps.

But they will also be voting to dissolve the union with England, withdraw Scottish representation from Westminster and end public spending subsidies from London. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has also caused fury in nationalist circles by appearing to say that, as a ‘new state’, Scotland would have to reapply for EU membership. Scotland’s continued membership can no longer be taken for granted.

These and other issues are set to dominate political debate in Scotland for the next 24 months. Hopefully, the whole of the UK will be involved, since all of it is likely to be affected. The coalition has given Scots the right of secession. But the impact of a breakup will be felt throughout these islands.

My own view is that, whatever the vote’s outcome, the UK will be changed radically. What will emerge is a looser, more federal Britain, where Scotland largely determines its own economic affairs, while remaining within the UK as far as broader matters of currency, foreign affairs and defence are concerned. Will it be for the better? We’ll soon find out.

Iain Macwhirter is political commentator on the Sunday Herald

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