By Gavin Falconer
If the people of Scotland opt for independence in the course of the next few years, historians will debate the causes behind it, ranging from the decline of the British Empire to the rise of the EU and NATO. On a rhetorical level, much of the blame is likely to be directed at Margaret Thatcher for her role in the industrial shakeout of the 1980s, but some may also attach to the Labour politicians who preceded her in an era during which much of Scotland’s industry was taken out of local hands without giving the country the requisite political competence to engage in its own central planning.
The UK Prime Minister who has overseen the most spectacular growth in support for an independent Scotland, however, is David Cameron. As I hope to show here, Cameron made several major errors that now threaten to bring about a result he claims to dread.
The first such mistake was his refusal to allow a second question in the independence referendum. That decision was made on the bad advice of colleagues and the misleading snapshot of public opinion provided by pollsters. Those who knew Scotland rather better would have been able to predict that the Yes vote would be much higher than the third or so of support that the option attracted immediately prior to the campaign. Put bluntly, such campaigns develop a dynamic of their own, drawing on deep, pre-existing reserves of national identity whereby perceived departures from the rules of fair play in politics and the media are likely to be taken as attacks on the nation — a phenomenon also highly likely to occur in Northern Ireland when, as demographers predict, nationalist parties achieve a majority in its Assembly and call a referendum there.
Cameron’s choice was no doubt informed by an inkling that devo max would lead to more rather than less support for independence and a hard-headed desire to keep oil-based fiscal transfers flowing to Westminster. As we now know, however, he failed in this ambition to put the nationalist genie back in the bottle. Although he got the binary result that he wanted, the figures were much closer than he had originally envisaged. Had he instead supported a question on devo max, which would easily have carried the day, he could have included conditions assuring Trident’s place in Scotland, limiting in law how quickly a second independence referendum could be held (in Northern Ireland it is seven years), and setting the controversial sea border in stone for as long as it had any fiscal relevance. Most attractive from a Conservative viewpoint, he could have removed Scots MPs from Westminster and returned to power with an absolute majority. Interestingly, Cameron’s attitude to the independence referendum was mirrored by his decision to have a referendum on the alternative vote rather than on full-blown PR. By declining to offer voters the PR prize, he encouraged more of them to use the referendum as means of punishing the Liberal-Democrats. If, on the other hand, first-past-the-post had been replaced, there would be no SNP tsunami heading for Westminster today.
Cameron’s second mistake was an economic one. Unemployment benefit accounts for only around 3% of welfare spending and has been frozen in real terms for decades. Using the economic crisis as an excuse to try to shrink the state was a strategy that brought high risks for little obvious gain. The very fact that benefits were being raised only in line with inflation meant that many Scots voters were not particularly conscious of whether they were devolved to Holyrood. On the other hand, Westminster’s decision to cut or cap such benefits and introduce such controversial reforms as the bedroom tax made them painfully aware of their parliament’s shortcomings.
Cameron’s third mistake was to latch onto EVEL as a short-term campaigning tactic in the current general election. If it works as he hopes, and he wins back enough English UKIP voters to achieve an overall majority in the Commons, there may well be a constitutional crisis, since Scotland will have returned even fewer Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs than at the last election, in all likelihood between zero and five. Moreover, the number of SNP Members of Parliament may be very high indeed. Together, those circumstances could throw the legitimacy of continued Westminster rule over Scotland into question.
If, on the other hand, Cameron fails in his bid to secure a majority, his willingness to articulate English nationalist critiques of the role of the SNP in a Westminster Government will still serve to legitimise further such attacks by the right-wing press, which knows that a full-term Labour Government with SNP input would be keen to break up media monopolies. Rupert Murdoch and others will therefore do anything in their power to bring such a Government down — and the best way to do that is to raise such a tide of populist sentiment against Ed Miliband that he rules out any deal with the Scots to provide him with a secure majority. As that would also mean a Government with little or no Scots input, that too could well lead to a constitutional crisis.
Taken as a whole, David Cameron’s actions are merely symptoms of a wider British disease, that of opportunistic short-termism. It is hard to imagine these kinds of errors being made in one of the continental social democracies so derided by English Conservatives. Of course, taking the long view, New Labour’s inability to introduce symmetrical devolution in English regions and reluctance to deal with such democratic anomalies as first-past-the-post and the House of Lords — also for short-term advantage — were little better. The forthcoming election has exposed the British state as a Heath-Robinson construct, and we may be about to see it come undone entirely.