Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Scottish referendum, home rule and the West Lothian Question

Scotland voted against becoming an independent country, by 55% to 45%. While the result was not quite as close as the polls predicted, many pollsters suggested this may well happen due to the "shy noes", which is indeed what happened.
That all being said, put in other terms, for every twenty voters, 9 were for separation - which suggests a very divided electorate. And now a few days on from the vote, Scotland feels like a different country psychologically and politically from a few months ago; perhaps permanently so.

Having energised the population like never before in living memory, the SNP look to be the political beneficiaries of the "Yes" campaign: many Labour voters voted for independence on the back of an attitude of complacency and seeming distant indifference from Westminster. One example of this was the surreal moments when Scottish Labour MPs came to their constituencies north of the border to campaign (and where many of them indeed hailed from), to be told by one-time Scottish Labour supporters to "eff off back to Westminster".
The referendum had the effect of making many Scottish Labour voters swing over to the "Yes" campaign and firmly into the SNP camp. That change may well be irreversible, with large implications for some of their seats in the Scottish (post) industrial heartlands. In other words, the SNP have turned overnight into a "Ukip north of the wall".

I'm alright, jock

A closer analysis of the referendum shows us that the vote was based on economic interests above all. The areas that voted yes were the (post) industrial heartland around Glasgow, and Scotland's fourth city, Dundee. Aberdeen (already wealthy from oil), and Edinburgh (wealthy from a vibrant economy), as well as the Scottish countryside regions and islands, all voted no.

This makes cold economic sense, if not being politically or psychologically heart-warming.
Those people who voted "yes" did so because they saw that they had nothing to lose and were more than willing to risk what little they had gained from the union with England (well, London). Glasgow and Dundee have never recovered from the (London-inspired) economic malaise brought on by the disappearance of the industries thirty years ago; in this sense, a vote for "yes" is a vote of desperation as well as aspiration.

(At this point, a wag might suggest that Glasgow and Dundee be given independence from the rest of "no" Scotland and the UK, seeing as that's what they voted for)

Those who voted "no" did so because of a simple attitude of "I'm alright, jack" - they were doing fine (or at least, not badly enough to want to risk something) from the union with London. To these people, independence meant change and uncertainty, and like any conservative cautionary individual, would prefer the devil they knew than the devil they didn't.

Another angle was the "age gap": the comparison of generational attitudes. Alex Salmond gave the vote to sixteen year olds with the transparent view that they would be more inclined to vote for independence. Not enough research has been done yet to show if this was truly proved to be the case. It follows some logic to suggest that older people (e.g. over fifty) may well look to their pensions and be terrified of the thought of what would happen to them come independence; on the other hand, younger people have the rest of their lives to look forward to aspiration rather than the caution and worry of an approaching mortality.

"What's your problem, Scotland?"

One last thought is comparing the independence movement and referendum in Scotland to contemporary and recent referendums in other parts of Europe. Catalonia is planning a referendum of its own in the coming weeks and months; Flanders in Belgium has had similar ideas for years. Even Italy has some (rudimentary) independence movements, such as the Veneto (Venice region), and others.
Since the end of the Cold War, Slovakia has split from the Czechs, the Baltic states have split (or re-detached themselves) from Russia, and Yugoslavia has fracturing into half a dozen pieces. Most recently, Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

A more comparable example to that of Scotland and the UK, is the case of Montenegro. This nation became joined with Serbia after the First World War (and also involved a union of crowns, as both Montenegro and Serbia were independent monarchies in 1914); Serbia also had other Slavic parts of the former Austria-Hungary as its reward for starting the First World War. The resulting nation became known as Yugoslavia, though it was in effect a "Greater Serbia", given its much larger population. When Yugoslavia fractured in the 1990s, Montenegro (apart from Kosovo) remained the only "partner" in this union of states with Serbia.
Finally, around ten years ago, Montenegro had its own independence referendum, which was won by only one percent of the vote (if that). That vote cast the last part of "Yugoslavia" into oblivion and history. Serbs and Montegrins are linguistically and culturally as alike as Scots and English. The question many "yes" voters in Scotland (and in other successful independence movements in Europe) ask other Scots is "why would you not want to be a free and independent country?" In short, what is your problem?

Many people in Glasgow and Dundee this weekend may feel they are living in a nation of scared sheep. While this is an unfair insult to many "no" voters, the anger from the "yes" camp is understandable: if places like Montenegro or Slovakia - neither of which have many recognisable resources - would be independent countries, then why not Scotland, with its oil, industry and educated population?
However this question may soon become academic, thanks to the "cunning plan" of David Cameron...

"I have a cunning plan..."

A week is a long time in politics, so they say, this this past week is certainly following that rule.
This time last week, panicked by the close opinion polls. Cameron, Milliband and Clegg agreed to a "vow" to grant Scotland extensive new powers - as explained by their spokesperson, the former PM Gordon Brown.
This was the "devo-max" option that Alex Salmond originally wanted on the referendum vote; Westminster was now offering a vote for either a Salmond-inspired "indy-lite", or a Westminster-panicked "devo-max". Salmond had been playing a poker game with Westminster for the last few years over Scotland's future, and Westminster had blinked.

Or so it seemed. Another analysis of the situation reveals that David Cameron saw a ruthless opportunity in what looked like another flapping episode at Downing Street. Cameron has plenty of form for both being at times a hopeless strategist and also a ruthless opportunist: it is for this reason why he has so many enemies in his own party as well as in general. It also explains why many view him as being a disaster on so many levels for the country. His current "cunning plan" is possibly the most dastardly of all, in terms of its huge implications.

In short, Cameron is happy to give "home rule" to Scotland, provided there is a quid pro quo for England (and Wales and NI, in theory).
Cameron's vision for preserving the UK in a modernised form is to give tax and law-giving powers to Scotland, provided Scottish MPs have no rights to vote on equivalent bills in England. In this way, Scottish MPs would be emasculated to having a right a sit in Westminster, but in effect do little else (and have no right to sit in a Westminster government either).

If Cameron's vision rings true, the same could also be true for Wales and NI, eventually leaving Westminster as an English-only parliament at some way down the line, with Downing Street effectively as an English-only government. In this scenario, while the Westminster government would represent (and formulate) foreign policy and British interests abroad, almost all other major internal decisions would be left to the devolved governments in London (Westminster), Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The "Balkanisation" of Britain?

The political ramifications for Labour are massive.
Cameron has clearly calculated that as the Tories are now an English-only party, this leaves Labour (and to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems) as the only truly "British" party in the country. Therefore, the best way to screw Labour electorally and politically is to give them what they had been asking for all these years - full devolution! This would leave the Tories at a natural advantage in an English-only Westminster, and make it more difficult for Labour to form a government.

Labour have dodged the bullet of Salmond's referendum only to be hit in the solar plexus by Cameron's "devo-max" plan.

Cameron has therefore gone from nearly breaking apart the UK by accident to now having a plan to effectively break up the UK on purpose.

The next seven months will prove to be pivotal and seismic in Westminster, With the Tories now keen to embrace some kind of "fast-track" devolution package before the general election in May (which they would ordinarily expect to lose), they see this plan as killing two birds with one stone: turning the tables on Labour by putting them in an impossible position - to accept their plan would be electoral suicide, but to reject it would be not much better.
The "England first" strategy also seems to be with Ukip in mind - though its easy to suspect that may also backfire, as Cameron has been trying to "out do Ukip" for the last eighteen months, with disastrous results.

These are truly crazy times, when you have a Conservative Prime Minister whose plan is to effectively break up the union in order to hold on to power.

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