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Westminster in headless chicken mode over independence referendum‏

The Scottish referendum has electrified Westminster this week. Everyone is in a state of scarcely suppressed hysteria at the prospect of the Scots voting for independence next Thursday. In some ways it is surprising that everyone is so surprised. It is true that the No campaign has long enjoyed a healthy lead. But SNP Members of Parliament, that I have chatted to, have always advised me to take note of the very large number of undecided voters. “When the undecided break” SNP insiders have argued “they will break for us”.

And this is what appears to happening. Hitherto undecided voters are coming down on the side of the Yes campaign by a ratio of two to one. Today I spoke to a visibly chastened member of the Labour front bench, who had been canvassing in Scotland the day before. He was shocked at the number of, otherwise solid, Labour supporters who told him firmly that they were voting yes.

Whatever happens next Thursday, the Yes campaign under the leadership of the SNP and Alex Salmond will win. If Scottish voters choose independence then the SNP has obviously won. But, even if the Scots vote No, the Scottish government are now promised many more powers. Nor is there any doubt that the SNP can engineer another referendum in the next ten or twenty years and that then they will be victorious.

A victory for independence for Scotland next Thursday poses real problems for both major political parties at Westminster. Never forget that David Cameron is leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party. The uneasy calm, which has descended over Northern Ireland, has allowed people to forget how much Unionism is at the core of the Tory identity.  It is difficult to see how Cameron could remain leader of his party, if he failed to keep the union together.

But a yes vote would spell the end of about forty Scottish seats which Labour can usually rely on. It would not be impossible for the Labour Party to win a general election without those Scottish seats. But it would be much harder. And there are a number of Scottish MPs currently representing Scottish seats, who have chosen to make their careers at Westminster, who would find those careers terminated.

There are other practical issues. If the Scots vote for independence in 2015, how can Britain go ahead with a general election in 2016? Any Scottish MP’s elected in that parliament would have no real status, as their country would be well on the way to independence. Furthermore the entire first twelve months of that new parliament would be taken up with constitutional matters.

One solution being discussed by MPs privately is extending this Parliament by one more year. Conservative MP’s have also floated the option that those Scottish MPs would not be allowed to vote in the new Parliament on English matters. Parliament goes into recess this week to allow time for the party conferences. But, if Scotland votes for independence, Parliament would have to be recalled and Labour Party conference might have to be cancelled.

But some of the chatter about the possibility of Scottish independence is unnecessarily apocalyptic. Scotland would not be “breaking away” or “splitting off”. This sounds as if the Scottish would slip their anchor and sail away. Actually Scotland would physically be in exactly the same place. There would no more be border guards between Scotland and England, than there are between Ireland and England. The beautiful scenery and exciting cities would be the same. And the shared cultural and political history would remain. For Socialists, in particular, nothing can take way the imperishable contribution of the Scottish Labour movement.

There will be time enough for recriminations if the independence campaign actually wins. But it seems clear that, in addition to an umbrella group, there needed to be a Yes campaign headed by the Labour movement and targeted at Labour voters.  Ed Miliband and Ed Balls pride themselves on their points of difference with the Tories and Lib Dems. But north of the border what must be more noticeable is how much the major parties are converging on issues like Trident, universal benefits and welfare. Alex Salmond is no type of left-winger. But the thought of never having a Tory government again, has obviously been too tempting for many Labour supporters.

But frightening as the prospect of Scotland “breaking away” is for many people, there are some positive aspects to the independence referendum debate. It has got people engaged in politics in a wonderful way. Just when everyone said working people had lost interest in politics and politicians, working class Glaswegians are queuing into the night in order to register to vote.

Young people are also enthused and pundits are predicting a very high turnout overall. It has also triggered a debate about constitutional arrangements in the British Isles as a whole. Even if the vote for independence is lost, the devolution of power to Scotland will have to be accompanied by further devolution to the Wales, the English regions and London.

David Cameron seemed to think that he had outmanoeuvred Alex Salmond on the independence referendum. But as next week’s vote draws nearer Cameron may be contemplating the words of Robert Burns “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley; and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy”


  1. Rod says:

    It’ll be a double win if Scotland votes Yes: for them, no more Tory government and no more New Labour government.

    I understand that those wanting a political career in Westminster will be disappointed – they’ll have to fight even more furiously for, what will most likely be, a diminishing number of safe Labour seats in rUK.

    Perhaps if they’d pulled their fingers out earlier and took a stand against New Labour’s NHS privatisation and disastrous wars there wouldn’t be so many Scots wanting to leave.

  2. As Seumas Milne pointed out in the Guardian, earlier in the week one of the that and former Scottish Labour Members and supporters want out of the UK is that Labour has still not got rid of most of the policies and values of New Labour and we are still saddled with most of TB and GB’s top down control methods and rules for Party management. We need to learn and return to being a democratically run democratic socialist party,

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