Category Archives: Westminster

The government Scotland voted for

The governments of the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
The governments of the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. ‘L’ means Labour or equivalent, ‘T’ means Tory or equivalent, and ‘U’ means undecided (Scotland sent the same number of Labour and Tory MPs to Westminster for a few years).
One of the more popular indyref illustrations circulating on Twitter points out that Scotland has voted Tory for 6 years out of 68 but has had Tory governments for 38 of those years.

When you look at how Scotland voted and the resulting UK government, Scotland got what it voted for 54% of the time since 1945. However, this actually makes it sound like Scotland has a decent amount of influence. An analysis by Wings over Scotland showed that “for 65 of the last 67 years, Scottish MPs as an entity have had no practical influence over the composition of the UK government,” and the conclusion was stark:

The truth is that the only people who can vote the Tories out are the English. It doesn’t matter what Scotland does: we get the government England votes for every time, it’s just that sometimes – less than half of the time – our vote happens to coincide with theirs and we feel as if we played a part when actually we didn’t.

This made me wonder how Scotland’s voting patterns compare with the three Scandinavian countries — Norway, Sweden and Denmark — so I created an illustration of the largest party at general elections in Scotland as well as the political alignment of the governments in London, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Denmark is an even worse match than Westminster (Scotland and Denmark overlapped for 53% of the time compared with 54% for Westminster), but Norway is a much better match at 63% and Sweden topped this comparison with an overlap of 69%.

That’s right — for 69% of the years since 1945, the Swedish government in Stockholm has been in alignment with the wishes of the Scottish electorate, in spite of the fact that Scotland sends no representatives there.

This is not an attempt to argue that Scotland should form a political union with Sweden instead of England (although the government of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Scotland would probably act in accordance with the wishes of the Scottish electorate much more often than Westminster does). However, it’s important to realise that Scotland influences the composition of the Westminster government so rarely that the government overlap with independent but like-minded countries like Norway or Sweden is actually much greater.

Being in a political union with a country that is ten times larger and has very different voting habits doesn’t lead to a sense of enfranchisement in the population. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Independence.

When is a UDI not a UDI?

Minnemynt fra Kroningen 1906 - 2 kroner (Revers)
Minnemynt fra Kroningen 1906 – 2 kroner (Revers) by Municipal Archives of Trondheim, on Flickr.
The Edinburgh Agreement states that both governments must respect the result of the referendum:

The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.

In theory, this should mean that Westminster after a Yes vote will negotiate the terms of independence constructively and as fast a reasonable possible. The Scottish Government has already stated that it believes it should be possible to conclude the talks in time for Scotland to become independent on 24 March 2016, and several independent observers have agreed this is a realistic time scale.

However, what happens if the 2015 General Election becomes a competition about who will be toughest on Scotland, and the resulting government is unwilling to compromise in order to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement? Or what if Westminster gets distracted by other issues (such as UKIP and the Brexit) and kicks the independence negotiations into the long grass?

A unilateral declaration of independence (a UDI) is normally something a prospective country issues when it has been denied a proper democratic path to independence.

So if Scotland votes Yes, and the Scottish Government does its best to negotiate in good faith, but Westminster acts as described above, will an independence declaration be a UDI, or will Scotland be entitled to do so as a result of the Edinburgh Agreement? Basically the independence declaration would say something like this: We have followed the Edinburgh Agreement in letter and spirit, but the Westminster Government is refusing to negotiate in good faith, so reluctantly we have come to the conclusion that we have to declare independence and resume the negotiations as an independent country.

Surely other countries would study the Edinburgh Agreement and conclude that Westminster was the culprit and that the Scottish independence declaration was just, valid and legal.

Hopefully this will be unnecessary, but when I read articles about how the Westminster Government isn’t even planning for the negotiations, I can’t help thinking they might need to be given a deadline in order to conclude them in a timely fashion.

As I’ve mentioned before, I do worry that the 2015 General Election will be such a mess if conducted during the independence negotiations that the only reasonable solutions are either to conclude the negotiations before April 2015 or to postpone the election till after Scottish Independence Day. Hopefully Westminster will soon wake up to the real possibility that we’ll vote Yes and will start planning for this scenario in earnest.

Between a rock and a hard place

Scotland Office
Scotland Office by Sarflondondunc, on Flickr.
The Scottish MPs from the Unionist parties are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult position as a Yes vote seems more and more likely.

Firstly, it seems their mere presence is preventing the UK government from preparing for a Yes vote, as stated by Alistair Carmichael:

I won’t be able to influence what people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland want out of their constitutional future – that would be entirely improper. It would be improper on the other side of the referendum, just as it would be improper for me to try to change it now. That’s why there will be no contingency planning.

I might be reading too much into his words, but it seems that Westminster is stuck between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, if they don’t plan for Scottish independence, they’ll look like ill-prepared amateurs to the entire world, and the financial markets will punish them harshly for it. On the other hand, if they do start planning, they’ll either need to include the Scottish MPs and government ministers (who would presumably swap sides after 18/09 and give away London’s negotiating position), or they’ll need to create an rUK government inside the UK government, which would make the Scottish members feel second-rate and break the basic principles of government.

Secondly, the future prospects are rather bleak for the Scottish MPs after a Yes vote. I have a feeling many of them consider themselves superior to the MSPs in Holyrood, and so they’ll probably expect to play a key role in the independence negotiations and in building the new Scotland. For instance, in an otherwise rather insignificant piece in The Telegraph, Iain Martin asked: “How soon do Scottish Westminster politicians go home to stop Salmond taking one man control of designing Scotland’s constitution?” It sounds like people in the London bubble tend to forget that the Scottish Parliament exists and is full of capable politicians, and I doubt they’ll take kindly to sage advice from newly-unemployed ex-MPs.

In this connexion, it’s interesting to note that Scottish Labour’s candidate selection process for the 2016 Holyrood election is more or less complete already, so unless they suddenly rip everything up again, many current MPs will have nowhere to go after a Yes vote. They won’t be able to become MSPs 2016 — they’d have to wait till 2020 (and that’s a long time if you’re used to a Westminster salary and expenses), and of course the House of Lords will not be open to Scottish ex-MPs after independence.

It’s no wonder what the Scottish Unionist MPs are the fiercest No campaigners. They have the most to lose, and the narrowing of the gap between Yes and No is already undermining their position at Westminster.

If we don’t get a Yes this time, we might end up like Catalonia

2013_09_11_JorgeLizana_Via Catalana Cuidadela7
2013_09_11_JorgeLizana_Via Catalana Cuidadela7 by Fotomovimiento, on Flickr.
There is a school of thought that the independence referendum is happening too soon, before the Scottish public has been fully convinced of the merits of the prospect. However, a number of events (a capable SNP government and a useless opposition at Holyrood, a major recession, the collapse of the LibDems in Scotland due to their Westminster coalition with the Tories, and a Westminster government that didn’t understand Scottish public opinion) together created a perfect storm that gave us first an SNP majority in Holyrood and then Westminster’s acceptance of a referendum organised by Scotland.

Now that we’ve got the chance to be sovereign again, we need to grasp it with both hands because the opportunity might never arise again.

At first, this might seem counterintuitive. After all, many Unionists moan about the prospects of a neverendum if we vote No. Indeed, I have argued in the past that only a Yes vote is likely to bring closure:

If it’s a Yes, I expect most people from the No campaign to start fighting Scotland’s corner relatively quickly. This is because I don’t know of many countries that after independence have had a large group of people trying to undo the divorce. […]

If the referendum ends in a No, I’m not so sure. Of course we’ll all accept the result and try to make the best of it at first, but having talked about how much Scotland will be able to achieve as an independent country, it will be very difficult to abandon the dream completely. The SNP might lose a few disillusioned voters, but on the whole I expect the party to survive and keep the flame alive. Also, given likely subsequent developments in the UK, such as leaving the EU and getting a Tory government supported by UKIP, I wouldn’t be surprised if large groups of Scots would soon bitterly regret their No vote in the referendum.

However, even if in ten or twenty years’ time everybody in Scotland agrees that it was a terrible mistake not to vote Yes in 2014, circumstances might be less favourable. Oil might be running out (or be banned due to global warming), Westminster might have decided to invest in nuclear power instead of Scottish renewables, the Scottish Parliament might have been declawed and defanged, and the UK might have succeeded in dismantling the welfare state everywhere to such a degree that restoring it and extending it (as suggested by the Common Weal project) would be completely unrealistic.

Even more importantly, would we ever be allowed to hold an independence referendum again? Even if pro-independence parties gained an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament once more (which is not an easy thing to do, given the electoral system used), would Westminster really cooperate? We shouldn’t forget that David Cameron only agreed to the referendum because he thought it would lead to a quick and decisive victory for the No side, which would have buried Scottish nationalism for a generation. If Scotland then decided to organise a referendum anyway, it’s very likely it would be deemed ultra vires, especially because Westminster will interpret the Edinburgh Agreement as a concession by the Scottish Government of sovereignty/authority — in other words, there would be a legal precedent that the Scottish Parliament should seek approval from Westminster before holding an independence referendum.

If the Scottish Government tried to organise a referendum after Westminster and the courts had decided it was illegal to do so, we’d get into a Catalan scenario, and that’s not a pleasant thought. It might look very romantic when you look at their 400 km-long human chain and all that, but this article calculates that the chance of an amicable divorce there is just 14.8%, and it emphasises the risk that the police and perhaps even the military will be deployed by Madrid to keep the situation under control. Hopefully things wouldn’t get that bad in Scotland, but the danger would be there.

We have a unique opportunity in September. We can vote Yes knowing that Westminster will respect the result, and it can all happen completely peacefully. However, it might be our one and only chance to do so. Nobody should vote No because they don’t think the time is ripe yet. This is probably the best chance we ever get.

An absolute mess?

Electrical cables, Phnom Penh, Aug 2011
Electrical cables, Phnom Penh, Aug 2011 by judithbluepool, on Flickr.
I had a wee Twitter conversation with a political blogger based in England a few days ago, discussing the consequences of a Yes vote for Westminster, and his conclusion? “It’s going to be an absolute mess.”

I was reminded of this when I read Martin Kettle’s article on the same topic in The Guardian:

If Scotland votes yes, the consequences could be messier and nastier for longer than most of us have allowed ourselves to consider. […] If a yes victory is declared, how will the British Labour party, meeting for its party conference on the following day in Manchester, react? By promptly agreeing to expedite Scotland’s departure? Dream on. A yes vote would explode into the UK party conference season. All the main parties would be destabilised in major ways.

It appears that London-based commentators have only just started thinking about the consequences of a Yes vote, and they’re shocked by how much it’ll change Westminster. It’s probably also in this context that one should see Benedict Brogan’s promise that David Cameron will resign after a Yes vote.

I’m not so sure things will be that messy. Of course, it’s likely the UK party conferences will be quite chaotic following a Yes vote. The Tories can perhaps focus on whether their dear leader will stay in power, but both Labour and the LibDems will need to look at how to give their Scottish members independence within the party. It’s clearly unacceptable if UK Labour is telling Scottish Labour how to negotiate for independence, and they also don’t want Scottish votes swaying any decisions on the rUK negotiation mandate.

However, once the conference season is over, I expect Westminster will get down to business. Not doing so would be a dereliction of duty.

Salmond talks as though the negotiations following a yes vote would be straightforward, respectful and informed by mutual trust. Why should that be so? They would more likely be devious, antagonistic and riddled with mutual suspicion, as well as largely meaningless until after the 2015 general election.

I don’t understand why the negotiations would be “largely meaningless” for the first six months. Surely if some areas had already been agreed on, a new government wouldn’t start renegotiating them.

However, I’m not quite sure whether it would be possible to conduct a sensible general election campaign while the negotiations are ongoing. Wouldn’t it be much better to create a national unity government in Westminster to match Scotland’s all-party Team Scotland? The general election could then be held after Scotland had become independent, which would allow the campaign to be about “normal” politics — schools, hospitals, the economy and Europe — instead of turning into a fight about who can be toughest and roughest in the independence negotiations.

Whether Salmond was negotiating with Cameron or Ed Miliband (and it is worth remembering that if Labour wins in the UK in 2015 and then wins in Scotland in 2016, Labour could in fact be negotiating with itself), the process would be likely to be prolonged. The UK government would have every possible incentive to drive a hard bargain with Scotland, as Hammond made clear in the defence context this week, and it would be backed by public opinion.

As I’ve written about before, most nations negotiating their independence from a larger country in the past spent significantly less time than 18 months (typically between a few days and six months).

Surely the SNP’s proposal is the longest amount of time it is possible to put normal politics on hold, so if London-based commentators are suggesting it’ll last much longer than this, it must mean they’re expecting the independence negotiations to be an ongoing sideshow rather than the government’s main focus.

Could it be that Westminster politicians are planning to tire out Scotland until we agree to keep Trident and all that? If so, Scotland will have to simply declare independence unilaterally (UDI) and negotiate the details afterwards.

The negotiations will only drag on for years if it’s deemed necessary to reach agreements on absolutely everything before independence day. Of course, a few things will need to be fleshed out — citizenship and dividing the military perhaps — but in most areas it should be possible to state that it will continue to be shared until an agreement has been reached, together with some general rules about conflict resolution, arbitration and such things.

Towards the end of his piece, Martin Kettle suddenly starts having visions of violence:

Meanwhile, what about the public mood? Views will not remain frozen unchangingly once the result is in. Nor will they inevitably remain benign and peaceful. Nationalist opinion could become more militant if the talks become bogged down. Even acts of violence are not inconceivable in certain circumstances or places, as anyone with a smattering of knowledge of the Irish treaty of 1921 will grasp.

There are no signs whatever that Scotland will turn violent after a Yes vote — the independence movement is uniquely peaceful and optimistic, and this would only get better after a Yes vote — so this sounds worryingly and dangerously like wishful thinking.

It also doesn’t sound likely at all that Westminster will want a scenario like this. Derek Bateman puts it well:

The moment a Yes is declared, the entire British machine moves into diplomatic mode. The first act is to be magnanimous by accepting the result with good grace. The second is to set the tone by appearing reasonable and, even while doing their utmost to get the best deal they can, they will present to the world an image of refined Brits maintaining their dignity. To be brutally frank, the loss of Scotland is the last vestige of a once ‘great’ country slowly sinking below the horizon. They must at all costs pretend the opposite is true, that this is a blip and nothing more.

As part of this image of refined Brits maintaining their dignity, and to concentrate minds and ensure that the negotiations will be finite in duration, I think it would be useful to establish two ground rules straight after a Yes vote: (1) Westminster should agree to a legislative moratorium whereby they agree to legislate as little as possible, and only with the consent of the Scottish Parliament, until Scotland is independent. (2) The two countries should agree that independence will happen no later than 24th March 2016, whether the negotiations have finished or not. Those two rules in conjunction should ensure that the negotiations proceed smoothly and successfully.

The reasons for the proposed legislative moratorium are twofold: Firstly, it would of course be crazy for Westminster to pass laws that Holyrood will simply repeal a few months later, and secondly, without it Westminster might find it tempting to focus on other policies that would be of more interest to the rUK public.

If the main Westminster parties decide to be reasonable and work constructively to finish the independence negotiations quickly and positively as outlined above while putting normal politics on hold, I don’t see any reason why the time between a Yes vote and independence day should become an absolute mess at all.

What devo-max really means

It seems to have become a popular Unionist pastime to devise schemes for slight changes to the devolution settlement, thinking that Scots will mistake them for devo-max and vote No to independence as a consequence.

However, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (PDF), 32% of Scots agree that “the UK government should make decisions about defence and foreign affairs; the Scottish Parliament should decide everything else” (in addition to the 31% who want all decisions to be made in Scotland). A few cosmetic changes to the status quo are clearly not enough to create a viable alternative to independence.

Public spending Scotland.
Public spending Scotland (from this report [PDF]).
If we look at public spending in Scotland (the graph on the right), it’s clear that more is already spent by Holyrood (the blue bits) than by Westminster (the red bits). To achieve devo-max, the remainder of the “social protection” spending would have to be moved from London to Edinburgh.

Interestingly, the rest of the non-devolved public spending adds up to peanuts (about £8bn), which means that it could all be paid for by VAT (which raised £9347m in 2012-13). As a consequence, all taxation apart from VAT could be devolved to Scotland, and all block grants and other fiscal transfers could be abolished.

There would obviously need to be a federal parliament to deal with foreign affairs, defence and VAT. Because it would have so little to deal with, it could be much smaller than the current House of Commons, and the seats should be allocated according to Penrose’s square-root formula, giving Scotland about 18% of the seats, ensuring that Scotland wouldn’t get less influence than it would have as an independent country.

In addition to the changes above, we’d need a proper constitution, preventing Westminster from ever rolling back devolution against the wishes of Scotland, and enshrining Scotland’s eternal right to self-determination.

There’s no reason why all of the above couldn’t be signed into law before the referendum to ensure that the Unionists don’t suddenly change their mind afterwards.

Sadly, it’s probably more likely that pigs will fly. Unionist politicians are showing absolutely no signs that they’ll ever agree to something as simple and reasonable as this.

More powers evitable

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
We see many headlines at the moment proclaiming that more powers for the Scottish Parliament are inevitable after a No vote.

I believe many of the people saying this are sincere, and it’s true, of course, that there is an overwhelming consensus in Scotland for many more powers. A referendum offering a system whereby the UK government makes decisions about defence and foreign affairs and the Scottish Parliament decides everything else would have been won by an overwhelming majority if independence hadn’t been an option.

However, if we listen to Scottish unionist politicians (for instance Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell who released their separate proposals today), they don’t agree on much. The common subset might consist of as little as devolving income tax, air passenger duty and the right of the Scottish Parliament to control its own elections. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, and much, much less than what a majority of Scots want.

At this point it’s important to remember that Scottish politicians cannot decide on extended devolution on their own. Whereas a nation such as Scotland arguably has the right to seek independence at any point, changing the devolution settlement can only be done by the Westminster (and rightly so — you cannot have a club where individual members can change the rules on their own).

So how likely is it that Westminster will accept the wishes of their Scottish colleagues after a No vote? In terms of realpolitik, this is what we’re likely to see:

  • No urgency: If the Yes side has just lost the referendum, it’ll take years before the SNP can feasibly try to call another one, so nothing bad will happen if further devolution doesn’t happen immediately. This means it won’t be urgent to do something, so it’ll be tempting simply to set up a commission and tell it to spend five years writing a report.
  • No consensus: Whereas there is consensus in Scotland for further devolution, that is definitely not the case in Westminster. For many different reasons, there is a lot of resistance, and many politicians there would probably call for reduced devolution in some areas as well as cuts to the Barnett formula for calculating the block grant.
  • Other priorities: Scottish independence has dominated the political debate in Scotland for the past two years, but that’s not at all the case in England, where topics such as immigration and the EU seem much more important. This means that it’ll be immensely difficult for the Scottish politicians to get their English counterparts to put anything meaty into the manifestos for the 2015 general election.

In other words, more powers are definitely not inevitable. I’m sure the Scottish unionist politicians will waffle for a long time about more powers, and it’s very likely a Calman II commission will be established, but I sincerely doubt anything more significant will happen after a No vote until such a time as a second independence referendum is about to be called. More powers are very much evitable.