Scotland says no to independence: here’s my first thoughts the morning after

by Stephen Tall on September 19, 2014

The people of Scotland have spoken. As that sound echoes, here’s what I think its rejection of independence means…

The SNP are strengthened:

45% of the Scottish electorate voted Yes. That’s a far higher figure than many of us would have predicted even a few weeks ago. Yes Scotland’s campaigning, driven by the SNP, has proved far superior to Better Together’s, driven by Labour. If the Nationalists resist the temptation to turn in on themselves they can expect to reap the electoral rewards of their grassroots activity next May. The Scots, by decisively rejecting independence, have lost their negotiating leverage: I expect them to turn to the SNP as an insurance policy against being forgotten about by Westminster. That poses a big threat to Labour, but also to the Lib Dems — after all, one-fifth of our MPs sit for Scottish seats.

The Tories are weakened…

Did Cameron panic or was it one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time? I’m referring to the ‘vow’ he co-signed with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, published in the Daily Record, promising more powers for Scotland and the safeguarding of the Barnett Formula financial settlement for Scotland. This opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of constitutional questions which are likely to dominate debate at least until Christmas. That part of it won’t bother Cameron: the irresistible logic of devo-max for Scotland is de facto home rule also for England – in other words, English votes deciding English laws – which, given the Tories’ strength in England, boosts their prospects of remaining in power, at least in the short-term. However, the promise to retain the Barnett Formula is another matter altogether. It offers an obvious opportunity to Nigel Farage to exploit: “It’s right that Scotland should have more powers,” he’ll say, “but it’s also right that there’s a fair financial settlement for the English, too. Public money should be allocated according to need.” And the worst of it is he’s 100% right on this, and he’ll now be the lone voice among the four main party leaders able to make that compelling case to the voters in the lead-up to the next general election. The Tories (as well as the Lib Dems and Labour) have placed ourselves on the wrong side of this issue.

… And so too are Labour:

Ed Miliband’s problem is at least as acute. The weakness of the Better Together campaign has shown the extent to which Labour’s support among its traditional working-class base has atrophied. As the SNP has exploited that in Labour heartlands in Scotland, expect Nigel Farage to do so in Labour’s northern heartlands. This may not be too much of a problem for Labour in 2015. It almost certainly will be by 2020, and Labour shows very little sign of being alert to this potent, existential danger. On top of that, Labour looks like it’ll be wrong-footed by the incipient demands for English-votes-for-English-laws which is already gathering a head of steam. Oppose it (as it seems Labour might try to) and the party will find itself having to try to defend the indefensible. Support it and Labour realises its limited chances of winning a majority of MPs in England (Blair landslides excepted) means it will not be in power even if it finds itself in office after May. A future Labour prime minister may have little choice but to hold discussions with a Tory First Minister of England if it wants to get its legislation on the statute books.

The news isn’t much better for the Lib Dems:

It might be tempting to enjoy a touch of schadenfreude at the other parties’ mounting problems. It might also be tempting – as the one party which has been banging on about constitutional issues for more than a century – to look at the momentum towards federalism as vindication of our stance. However, the big question is (1) the principle: will it be done in a liberal way?, and (2) the practical: will any of it help the party to win power? On (1) the principle, simply giving more powers to politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London isn’t the liberal way of devolving power to local communities – however, it’s probably what the Tories and Labour will try and do and what they’ll stop at. The problem we need to address is over-centralisation of power, not simply the capital city where that power is concentrated. And on (2) the practical, the party appears set on signing up to the continuation of the Barnett Formula despite years of opposing it — Ukip exploiting English resentment at that injustice will apply to Lib Dems as well as to Tories and Labour. It’s another reason why Nick Clegg’s use of Little England as an insult has been misjudged.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.