The SNP lost the referendum battle but may still win the war

3 Jan 2015

Parallels were often drawn during the campaign for Scottish independence with that of the Canadian experience and the separatist referendum in Quebec in 1995. The sudden rise in pro-independence support, revealed in the now infamous YouGov poll in The Sunday Times less than two weeks before polling day, was the source of much of these comparisons. Yet, three and a half months after the Scottish people rejected independence from the United Kingdom, Britain’s separatist movement is now resembling that of Canada’s. Namely, an unwillingness to accept as final, new constitutional reform measures promised in the feverish atmosphere of the referendum campaign. It is for this reason, among many others, as to why this article will argue that the Union remains at risk, at a time when the independence debate should have been put to bed for a generation.


Having failed to convince the majority of Scottish voters of the merits of an independent Scotland, one would have thought that the Scottish National Party (SNP), and its two most prominent politicians (Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon), would have undergone a period of soul-searching. Far from it. Instead, the SNP have been acting as if they were the victors in September, whilst Unionist parties have been ridden with internal conflict over future constitutional arrangements for the UK.


This buoyant mood inside the nationalist camp is hardly surprising; its membership has sky-rocketed from 22,000 members on polling day to nearly 100,000 enthusiastic activists. As The Economist notes, ‘the SNP is now Britain’s third biggest party, more than twice the size of the Liberal Democrats’. This milestone is even more impressive at a time when party membership figures are in terminal decline. What’s more, recent opinion polls continue to show the SNP hovering around 20% ahead of Labour in Scotland and thus on course to win the vast majority of the 59 Scottish Parliamentary seats at Westminster next May.


Against this backdrop and the likeliness of a second consecutive hung parliament, it is not surprising that Salmond has made the decision to once again run for a seat in the House of Commons. Indeed, Salmond, could potentially be thrust into the position of kingmaker, as Nick Clegg was in 2010, in any ensuing coalition negotiations. It hardly needs to be said that Salmond would drive a hard bargain with the Labour negotiators (Salmond and Sturgeon have both made it clear that only a deal with Labour would be considered). At the extreme, the price for SNP support would be a commitment to hold a second referendum – perhaps towards the end of the parliament. It would take a brave man to bet against the nationalists winning such a plebiscite.


However, even if a hung parliament is averted, and the Conservatives managed to increase its share of the vote, a feat not achieved by a governing party since October 1974, the Union would remain in danger. A Tory government at Westminster would further boost the nationalists’ narrative that England and Scotland are profoundly different in their political orientations and that divorce is therefore inevitable. Fatally for the Union, these divergent political orientations could be the final nail in the coffin if Britain votes to withdraw from the European Union on the back of English eurosceptics. As Salmond recently warned; “an EU referendum could […] be a “tipping point” that forces another poll in Scotland – if the English vote to leave but the Scots vote to stay”. Thus, a second independence referendum could be on the cards, irrespective of whether it is Ed Miliband or David Cameron who holds the keys to Number 10 Downing Street.


In the meantime, nationalists are busy propagating a new grievance agenda vis-à-vis the Westminster parties. To this end, Salmond, as a consummate and experienced politician, has identified an opening and now claims that the Smith Commission’s proposals do not fulfil the ‘vow’ that was desperately cobbled together by the ‘no’ campaign. This is despite the fact that the proposals, if passed, will transfer to the Scottish government, the power to set income tax rates and to retain all income tax raised in Scotland, amounting to what The Economist describes as ‘a dramatic reshaping of the British state’. Yet, the Scottish people are being led to believe that the ‘three amigos’ as Salmond labels Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband, have reneged on their promises; further discrediting the Westminster system as a result.


A further shake-up of the constitutional kaleidoscope to emerge from the referendum campaign was the Prime Minister’s undertaking to finally settle one of the perennial questions of British politics, the West Lothian question, in the form of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). One cannot deny that this is a necessary corrective to the asymmetrical devolution settlement bequeathed by the last Labour administration.


However, one fears that implementation of this, on the face of it simple constitutional principle to grasp, will only further accentuate the sense that England and Scotland are daily becoming separate and distinct nations. As the constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor explains, “the implication [of EVEL] is that the English no longer wants the Scots at Westminster.” Any policy that has the potential to weaken the sense of unity within the UK should be thoroughly considered and debated and, if needs be, a constitutional convention should be established to consider its merits.


Having fought off one of the gravest challenges to its existence in 2014, the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains intact, but for how long? Perhaps, as in the Canadian example, the battle for the unity of Britain will never finally be won. Unionist politicians would be wise, though, in 2015, to re-affirm the benefits of residing in one of the world’s most successful unions ever created. After all, to paraphrase the political commentator Andrew Marr, to be born British remains a fantastic stroke of luck.


By Matthew Rice

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