“This is an extremely disappointing day for me as a descendent of a Scottish clan and as a proud, patriotic Prime Minister committed to keeping our three hundred year old Union together. However we must move forward to address the democratic will of the Scottish people voiced yesterday.”
– Prime Minister David Cameron, 19 September 2014
These may be the heavyhearted words of David Cameron if Scotland chooses independence on 18th September 2014. Looking into the future, a Yes vote in the independence referendum would send shockwaves through UK politics while presenting the greatest constitutional challenge since the Great Reform Bill clashes of 1830-32. Demonstrating commentator’s fixation on the short-term ups and downs of the campaign up to this point, there has been little consideration of the unprecedented political and constitutional scenario that may unfold the morning after referendum day.
Politically, it is a given that the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems would be seriously weakened as a result of a Yes vote. Moreover, David Cameron will be put in a particularly difficult position due to his actions that inadvertently set in motion the break-up of the Union. In early 2012, during negotiations on the holding of a referendum, Cameron was certain the Scottish people would not bring themselves to choose separation. In a conscious effort to put the issue to bed, Cameron forced Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s hand by demanding a decisive yes or no referendum question that paved the way not just for more devolved power but full independence. When the dust settles, it will sink in that Cameron’s premiership brought about the loss of a swathe of the country. History will treat Cameron harshly, arguably overshadowing all other Coalition achievements.
A Yes vote would also galvanise the sense that Cameron has never overseen an outright election victory
– something which would raise serious questions over the PM’s ability to win for the Conservatives in the 2015 General Election, potentially prompting calls for him to be replaced. Unsettled party backbenchers, still digesting the very real possibility of a sizeable European elections setback on 22nd May 2014, may ask ‘why continue to back a loser?’
Separately, there will be a section of the Tory faithful that will recognise the mathematical benefits of a Yes vote. Many Scottish Labour constituency MPs would cease to exist after independence was legally enacted. As a result, future general election contests would benefit the Tories due to traditionally higher Conservative support south of the border. This would render Labour’s future chances of a general election victory seriously difficult. However the prestige lost due to the breakaway of Scotland will hurt the unionist wing of the party as it goes against bedrock Conservative principles – something which will weigh heavier than simple mathematical gains. It will be a moment of principle versus party within Tory ranks. Questions over Cameron’s leadership would also play a decisive role in how to solve a series of constitutional conundrums raised by a Yes vote.
Addressing the May 2015 General Election, the SNP independence blueprint, Scotland’s Future, claims that Scottish MPs elected in May 2015 would serve curtailed 10-month terms, until the ‘independence day’ in March 2016. However, if Labour was to secure a majority purely by virtue of Scottish seats, then months later this majority evaporates on Independence Day when Scottish MPs cease to sit in Westminster… what then? Could we see a change of Government between elections?
Separately, what motivates Scottish MPs to stand in the May 2015 General Election knowing they will only be lame duck MPs with an imminent expiration date? And, what Scots would bother to vote knowing their MPs would be no more come Scotland’s official day of separation?
Further complications arise around the makeup of the UK negotiation team if Scotland votes for independence. The UK Government contains several Liberals Democrat ministers and is supported by 12 Scottish MPs. The morning after the Yes vote, won’t all those Scottish MPs have a conflict of interest when discussing the terms of Scotland’s separation? One member of the quad of negotiators that forged the Coalition Agreement, Danny Alexander, would be ruled out of separation negotiations.
These serious questions remain unanswered as we approach referendum day.
The political ramifications of a Yes vote are politically explosive and constitutionally challenging given the complication of European elections and the General Election. David Cameron’s handling of the situation and his personal standing will feed into the ‘what now for parliamentary democracy’ question that will no doubt arise. Given the debate over the viability of a currency union and uncertainty around the accession of an independent Scotland as an European Union member state, this is a challenging period.
Ahead of referendum day, there needs to be a more frank discussion on the constitutional nuts and bolts of keeping the political system operating both to prepare for possible independence while also safeguarding the public’s trust in the Westminster system of government.
With the polls tightening, there is still the chance that the questions posed in this article could become much more than hypothetical theories.
Look out for our next blog discussing the impact of a Yes vote on businesses north and south of the border. Follow @PolicyPeriscope, Burson-Marsteller’s 360 degree perspective on the latest political trends in the UK.