3 January 2014

2015: An Ugly Stramash

The morning of the 19th of September 2014.  A slate sky, rain falling. In London, a whey-faced David Cameron emerges from Downing Street, shielded by trembling flunkies, black umbrellas buffeted by the autumn weather.  A shock of camera flashes accompany a chorus of cries from the damp knot of the press: "You've lost the United Kingdom, Prime Minister. Will you resign?" 

Elsewhere in the imperial capital, a red tie unravelled about his neck, Ed Miliband scores wearily through the north-most corner of his 2015 map of general election battlegrounds and constituencies. Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage snore soundly on through.  

For some of you, convinced already that the Yes campaign is stuffed, this is an impossible future.  Others may regard it as unlikely. But for the sake of January fun, let's treat it as a serious possibility. Say, by a slim or healthier margin, Scotland endorses independence.  Much has and will be written about how this affects Scotland. Less attention has been paid to how such an outcome will impact on the short-term politics of what is left of the United Kingdom.

Despite their endless appetite court-politics and ferment surrounding arguments and positioning for 2015, few metropolitan commentators have applied their minds to this question, convinced that a No vote is inevitable. Unless they buck up their ideas over the next nine months, and try a little counter-factual thinking, they may be in for a nasty, if entertaining shock.

So Salmond wins out. Negotiations for independence begin. And within a scanty few months, we're in May, and the 2015 general election campaign. Do Scottish constituencies still send MPs to Westminster? In all likelihood.  Firstly, some reasons of principle. During the transition from 2014 to 2016, Scotland will retain an interest in a number of matters reserved to Westminster.  The democratic principle demands some sort of a say in that. This problem might be largely answered by devolving further powers to Holyrood over various matters currently reserved to Westminster: welfare say, and taxation.  

But here we encounter a couple of practical snags. If the Westminster government refuse to engage in any serious pre-referendum negotiations, there will be no time - governmental or parliamentary - to devolve any powers between October 2014 and May 2015, or for that matter, to rejig Westminster's electoral map to exclude Scottish constituencies from the general election before the vote.  The smart money says that the election goes ahead as planned. Instead of trying to resolve the tensions it will cause using legal and institutional means, muddling through in a classically British style. At least until after 2015 when we might reasonably expect Westminster to adopt reforms to exclude Scottish members from the Commons, on Independence Day.

So the election goes ahead. But the Scots, being curious, fickle sorts, follow the same parliamentary tactics they pursued in 2010: the first past the post system gives Labour its accustomed landslide. Michael Settle wonders if the public might not give the SNP a boost. But let's say that old habits die hard, and the ballot boxes come out red. And across the rest of the United Kingdom? That is a rather trickier one to call. So let's not, and consider each of the likely outcomes in turn.  

This has the recipe for political disaster, however you slice it. Let's start with the easiest to justify: a Tory majority or a re-elected Liberal-Tory coalition, enjoying majority support in England and Wales. If the results of the 2011 Holyrood election is anything to go by, the 2015 general election is unlikely to be kind to Scottish Liberal Democrats. The party currently holds eleven seats north of the border, clustered around the Highlands and Islands and Aberdeenshire, with pockets of support in the borders, well-heeled bits of Edinburgh and Fife. 

Assuming that hostility to the party does not significantly abate by next year, Tory and Liberal representation might match the number of Scottish pandas, with Orkney and Shetland's Alistair Carmichael joining David Mundell in the enclosure. If 2015 generates a Tory or Tory-Liberal majority, it is likely to do so outside of Scotland. The elimination of Scottish representation some time in 2016 is not likely to impact on the perceived legitimacy of that government.

The election of any permutation of Labour government - minority, coalition or majority - poses far more significant problems of legitimacy. Despite the mythology to the contrary, we know that Labour has not relied on Scotland for any of its recent general election victories (1997, 2001, 2005). But the worst case scenario in 2015 is (a) the election of a Labour majority with Scottish MPs which evaporates without those MPs. It is inconceivable that MPs representing Scottish constituencies could serve out their full term in the UK parliament, influencing English policy, and sustaining Ed Miliband's premiership. 

Say, for the sake of argument, that the UK elects a Labour majority with Scotland, but a Tory or a narrow Tory-Liberal majority without them.  If the Labour majority installs Ed, it can expect to lose its mandate some time in 2016, and to find its legitimacy constantly questioned in the media, as it relies on its Scottish MPs to impose policies affecting only England and Wales: the West Lothian question on acid. This is likely to be particularly problematic, if Labour stands on a prospectus, as it is likely to, focussing on public services in England and Wales. 

If, by contrast, the Labour party exercises a self-denying ordinance in recognition of the referendum result, David Cameron would find himself presiding over a minority government in the House of Commons.  Would - could - the majority Labour opposition resist the temptation to use its ultra montane , defeated and embittered Scottish unionist majority to interfere? In this scenario, the only credible option is another general election as early as 2016, to elect the government of what remains of the United Kingdom, an abrupt change of government with the disappearance of Scottish members without an election, or perhaps an unstable minority administration. 

The consequences of independence for the centre of British politics has generally not troubled the imaginations of metropolitan commentators. It should.  Even on their preferred terrain of short term political tactics, a Yes vote followed by the General Election is likely to transform the political calculus of both Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties.  

The short-to-medium term instability which may result also has significant implications for the negotiations to unpick Scotland from the United Kingdom. There is a significant possibility that any Labour-led UK government involved in negotiations enjoys questionable authority, and a risk of governmental change at the tail end of the process in 2016. This may be less problematic if there is a degree of unanimity between UK Labour and the Tories on the approach to be taken in the negotiations.  It is a recipe for difficulty if the favoured approach of the main parties diverge.  

At this stage, I don't think one can predict with any certainty which party - Labour or Tory - is liable to be more sympathetic negotiators for an independent Scotland to deal with. Nor, I think, is it obvious whether any UK governmental instability is likely to be a boon or a bother.  On the one hand, political disorganisation seems likely to favour the more organised delegation, with clearer aims and goals. On the other, time is of the essence and the distraction of one party to the negotiations is not likely to increase the celerity with which agreements may be reached - a problem for the First Minister.  

From the viewpoint of of stability, the best outcome for independence supporters in 2015 is the re-election of a Tory or Tory-Liberal majority coalition or a roaring performance by Ed's band, securing a majority from England and Wales without their Scots comrades. But Fortune (and the electoral system) rarely smiles so kindly on us.  We'd better all be ready for an ugly stramash.


  1. A great first paragraph, LPW. As that testimonial on the right side-bar attests: "..... “... the erudite and loquacious Peat Worrier who never knowingly avoids a prolix circumlocution.” ~ Love and Garbage.....", I am thankful. We'll leave Conan the Librarian's extolling of your virtues for a later comment. And of course a new Scots word - 'stramash'!
    I've only a tiny quibble; The Autumnal Equinox arrives September 23, 2014 at approximately 02:29 GMT. Accordingly, the black umbrellas of the trembling flunkies surrounding The Rt. Hon. David Cameron, MP on the morning of the 19th of September, 2014 will not be buffeted by autumn weather, but by late-summer weather instead.
    Then again, with the sun having set on the Empire, perhaps y'all re-negotiated the timings of the solstices and equinoxes in the physical UK for your own purposes and they now differ from the times accepted by rest of your former colonies?

    1. Fie! This wasn't prolixity, it was scene-setting! ;-)

      On your analysis of the calendar, I can only relent. And here was me (a September bairn), thinking I was born amidst the autumn. That's me told.

    2. Northern Europeans (such as Scots as Danes) tend to regard September as an autumn month (sometimes called the meteorological autumn), whereas people from further south often prefer the so-called astronomical seasons, where autumn starts at Equinox. See more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter#Astronomical_and_other_calendar-based_reckoning

    3. So it's 'fie' is it? I've been using 'fi' as the spelling for that interjection. I will, of course, defer to your expertise in all the things that are very lexical, though not in anything or matters truly astronomical. Sheesh, there's gotta be a line in I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General to embrace that rhyme.

      You know the Holyrood-ites, and you quote their fights historical,
      From Three Estates to Pairlament, in order categorical;
      You're very well acquainted too with matters oh so lexical,
      You understand judicials, but you suck at astronomical,

      I made the terrible mistake of researching 'bairn' in the 'Scots Wiktionary'.


      Gibberish. Nowt but gibberish.

      Well, you still could be an autumnal bairn, metaphorically speaking. Did your parents welcome your nascence or did it presage for them the burdensome winter of their subsequent unending discontent? You did speak earlier of your pre-pubescent embrace of cynicism with its genesis a result of a horrid wean. Just sayin' is all.

  2. Fascinating reality-based conjecture as ever LPW. Am sure you are right about the unpreparedness of many at Westminster for a Yes vote. I wonder also - in that event - what our political landscape will look like if we get a unionist-dominated Holyrood in 2016.

    I'm not even sure what that would mean - something like a Ukrainian situation with many hankering for a return to union perhaps?

    We all take it for granted that if there is a Yes result it would be a small majority, but I'm not even sure of that, given the strange mixture of volatility and apathy displayed by the electorate.

    I fear I am becoming ever more pessimistic about the future of our polity no matter what September brings!

    1. Edwin,

      It could get awfie weird, awful quickly. If the Scottish Labour weren't so transparently without imagination, competence, or a plan, I might be more worried - but without being hubristic, I think there is a very decent shot that the SNP keep their mitts on power in Holyrood, win or lose the referendum. Unless something significant changes between now and then.

  3. Excellent blog post!

    Of course it'd also be possible to postpone the rUK general election by a year, i.e., until after Scottish independence has happened. This is what Angus Robertson suggested (and I discussed in a brief blog post here: http://www.arcofprosperity.org/the-postponement-of-the-2015-general-election/).

    The main problem with discussing such options is that any Scottish nationalist mentioning it can be accused of undue interference, but what do you do when people in the Westminster bubble just aren't interesting in looking at the issues involved?

    1. Thomas,

      It is certainly a possibility: one might might begin to look more attractive after a Yes vote than at present, when most in the Westminster body politic seem convinced it won't happen. On the other hand, the momentum is clearly in the other direction, militating in favour of an early election. But if the balance of convenience changes...

    2. Yes, I would reckon that after a Yes vote, there is a good chance that the Coalition amend their agreement, giving this WM parliament a five year term. But, as you say, mentioning the sensible notion at this time just results in angry bollocks being spouted.

    3. Though such a measure might also have slight timing issues too, requiring s1(2) of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 to be amended.

    4. .... though. A closer read of the actual legislation (doh!) indicates that the PM can defer the date of the election by statutory instrument for not more than two months (though the drafting is a bit unclear: this power may not extent to the next polling date, depending on how you interpret it).

  4. There is one other scenario ,suppose at the 2015 British GE Scotland returned a landslide SNP contingent that then held the balance at Westminster.
    That would make negotiations interesting.
    The Scottish Electorate are very sophisticated and may want to ensure that our interests were best served by sending 50 SNP MPs.

    1. Rod,

      It's certainly a possibility. It is difficult to foresee just how radically a Yes vote would shake up Scottish politics, and in particular, Scots' attitudes towards voting at Westminster. An SNP delegation holding a balance is just another mischief to bung in the bag!

  5. Would the Labour party in Scotland not fight that UK GE on the basis that their manifesto would claim that we'd just had a rush of blood to the head when voting 'Yes' in the referendum and that a majority of Labour MP's somehow overturned that?

    1. I suppose it is a dim possibility, though an unwelcome one. I would hope that wiser heads would prevail: Westminster has partly facilitated this referendum. It has legitimacy. Its result should command respect.

  6. I believe in the event of a Yes win, the Westminster establishment will already have it's counters well drafted and in place. And one measure will be, for at least one parliamentary term, the reduction and use of the political parties as pawns by enforcing a coalition between Conservatives and Labour and the formation of a National Government.

  7. In view of the crisis that a Yes vote would cause in the state isn't the likeliest option a national coalition involving all the parties except the SNP, PC etc. This is possible whether the election is held in 2015 or postponed until secession.

  8. And surely Cameron can claim that Darling lost the vote not him. Isn't that part of what this posturing on debates and briefing against Darling is about?

    1. I'm not sure that'd wash, but then, I'm no expert on the internal machinations of the Tory party. But if folk aren't happy with Cameron anyway, any weapon against him may seem a handy weapon. On your first suggestion, I think not. Not least because I'm not sure a Yes vote would precipitate a crisis anything like as substantial in the British state.