UK politics

Referendums and narratives

While it looks very unlikely at the moment, there is a possibility that Scots will vote for independence in 2014, and I am surprised by how unconcerned Westminster politics has been with that possibility. A lot of talk now centres on the UK general election in 2015, following the recent Eastleigh by-election, but it assumes that Scots will not be voting for independence, and the UK will remain more or less the same.

There are several possible narratives, and the outcome of referendums actual and possible, such as Scottish independence, or the UK (possibly without Scotland) leaving the EU, will depend on which storyline being the most plausible to the people. The most convincing narrative will have at its centre the future economic prospects: what is the best bet for Scotland and for the UK? It depends on the relative economic performance of the UK and the EU (or Europe in general) in the near future.

By delaying the referendum on Scottish independence to 2014, rather than holding it early, Mr Salmond must be hoping that the economic recovery in the EU is visibly strong, while the UK economy remains in the doldrums, in the run-up to the referendum. In other words: Scotland is shackled to the rest of the UK (read: England), and is suffering from it. The argument will hark back to that that led to the union of England and Scotland at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in that Mr Salmond would present that an independent Scotland has continued access to the huge market called the EU, and through the EU to other markets, as much as the union with England enabled Scots to obtain access to the expanding colonies. There is a danger, if Mr Cameron were to be elected with a Tory majority, of the UK (read: the English) leaving the EU, even if a majority in Scotland voted to remain in the EU.

Mr Cameron most probably does not want to take the UK out of the EU, yet he has bound himself to holding a referendum on the British membership of the EU, in 2017, if he is re-elected. Even if he is returned to office with the Conservatives holding a majority in the House of Commons, it is unlikely that other EU member states will concede to his demands. He may well end up in an impossible situation, where he has failed to achieve the minimum concessions, thus he must recommend the British people to leave the EU. By the time of the referendum, he would have to hope that the EU economy has recovered sufficiently, and its recovery has a demonstrably positive effect on the British economy, so that a continued membership would appeal to the electorate, as well as dressing up any concessions he has managed to obtain as victories.

What the future holds, we cannot know, and events, moments and personalities will be important, but there will emerge a narrative, perhaps only clear after the referendum, that will have convinced the electorate. My contention here is that future economic prospects will play a part in the narrative that future children will learn as history: but as economic forecasting is almost as impossible as predicting the weather, the crucial point is what seems and feels right to the people at the time of the vote.