Scottish independence referendum 2014

Messy divorce or constitutional confusion?

Very few people would have predicted that the referendum on Scottish independence to be this close on the eve of the polling day. Down here in London, I feel there has been an air of complacency, which essentially treated the referendum as an amusing sideshow of no political significance, except to render the SNP government in Scotland a lame-duck administration and deprive the party of its raison d’ĂȘtre. The political debate until recently was firmly framed around the upcoming UK general election in 2015, assuming lazily that Scotland would vote quite clearly to remain in the UK. I thought that it might be quite close, but I had never really anticipated that the yes campaign would be ahead in some polls in the run-up to the vote. I am not sure how much I would trust the polls, but there is more than a distinct possibility that Scotland would indeed become independent: it is a truly significant moment in the history of Scotland, Britain, and beyond.

It may well be argued that Mr Salmond has already won, whatever happens on Thursday as there will be either independence or something close to ‘devo-max’, and if Scots were to vote no, the UK might be still in one piece perhaps by a thread, but there will be huge constitutional issues that will have to be addressed. By all accounts, Mr Salmond is a canny politician, who knows how to frame the debate, appeal to the Scottish electorate, and carry many Scots with his him. After all, the SNP won an outright majority in a system that was meant to prevent such occurrence. When the motions were set for this referendum, one contentious issue was on the wording and questions that should appear on the ballot. It ended up as a simple yes or no to independence, but a possible inclusion of ‘devo-max’ had been debated. Mr Salmond might have settled for ‘devo-max’ as an attainable goal a couple of years ago, given the very remote likelihood of a yes vote, and he will have achieved this as the minimum, but he may even win independence.

If the vote turns out to be yes, it will be a messy divorce procedure: there will be so many arrangements that need to be made, though constitutionally in terms of internal governance perhaps not too complicated. If Scotland were to become independent, then the Scottish government – the executive – can be formed from the majority in Holyrood, and the rUK (rest of the UK / rump UK) government can be formed from the majority in Westminster, with a less significant West Lothian question with regard to Wales and Northern Ireland, as the West Lothian question regarding Scotland is gone. The West Lothian question, incidentally, points out the anomaly in which Scottish MPs in Westminster can vote on matters affecting England (also Wales and Northern Ireland) but not on matters that are devolved to Holyrood in Scotland, and non-Scottish MPs in Westminster naturally cannot vote on matters that are devolved to Holyrood. In case of Scottish independence, each government will be a government of a sovereign state. In constitutional terms, the executive-in-parliament model will continue in both countries essentially unchanged.

If Scotland votes to remain in the UK, it could and probably will lead to a constitutional monstrosity. Consider if Scotland were to vote against independence, and Scotland has something close to ‘devo-max’ promised by the main Westminster parties, it makes the West Lothian question extremely acute, and it will raise serious questions as to how the British executive can be formed. There will be limits to muddling through the constitutional mess that the UK has somehow managed to do so far. What happens when the parliamentary majorities in Westminster are different with and without MPs from constituencies in Scotland? Will there be two governments: one for Britain that deals with defence and foreign policy for example, and another for Britain minus Scotland for things like education and welfare? If there were to be an English parliament, so that England has its own parliament as Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish do, would that be in addition to the current Westminster parliament? How would budgets be allocated, and taxing powers to sustain them? What would be the remits of each, the British executive, and the governments of various constituent countries of a federalized or confederated UK? Unless the answer is to revert to absolute monarchy, the UK will need to have proper debates on the constitution that it had oddly skirted for some time.

Whether a messy divorce or constitutional confusion ensues, the voters in Scotland will decide tomorrow, and whatever happens, there will be profound changes. It is an oft-used hackneyed expression, but this is a historic moment, which will determine the course of the future of all those who live in the UK.