Oh England, my lionheart
Not only did Scotland vote to stick with the Union last night but they did so convincingly. A campaign that had seemed set to do the politically impossible – and somersault from a 25 point deficit to victory – was, in the end, constrained by the rules of gravity. 55% to 45% is a decisive win for the Better Together campaign. It is not the stomping victory some had presumed would be theirs, but it puts paid to the notion of independence for a generation. The psychological impact of the final vote tally, 1,617,989 for Yes 2,001,926 for No, is significant in drawing a line under the matter, as is the fact that in only four local authority areas did Salmond win a majority of the local votes.
There’s no denying the excitement of this campaign. Images of people who have never voted before queuing round the block to exercise their democratic right are something we are more used to seeing in the Middle East or South East Asia. Here, on our doorstep, was a politics that was impassioned, infectious and – at times – indignant in a way that sometimes felt alien to our rather more staid political culture. That too aides the message that independence is defeated as an idea; no-one can argue that this is not the settled will of Scotland.
Some of that excitement has also opened up the possibility of reinvigoration in Scottish Labour. Holyrood’s Labour Party has long suffered from its talent leaking South – but many Scottish big guns have spent the last few months North of the border, suddenly reconnecting with their roots. Jim Murphy is talking about seeking selection for the Scottish parliament in 2016 and rumours abound that Gordon Brown will seek the Leadership and take on Salmond for the role of First Minister – emboldened and reawakened by the reception that met his barnstorming speech at the end of the campaign. There is a sense in which, Scotland has lent the Left an insight into the real power of populist, anti-Westminster and anti-City sentiment. It is telling that – on the whole – it was the very poorest who voted ‘Yes’ in the greatest numbers. A meme of punishing London for its economic, as well as political, dominance was threaded throughout the SNP’s messaging – Labour could capitalise on this same resentment in Northern England. But to do so would require a commitment to tackling the power of London and its institutions, like the City. This would be a big change in policy direction for the modern Labour Party.
But now the time has come for the Westminster establishment to pay the political price for their mismanaged campaign. In their frenzied attempts to win back momentum from the SNP, the UK- wide parties promised a swathe of new powers alongside the retention of the Barnett formula – meaning Scots will have even further autonomy whilst also continuing to benefit from higher per- capita spending than the rest of Britain. It was a roll of the dice, and we will never now know what would have happened had Miliband and Cameron kept their cool and avoided being bounced into last minute constitutional renegotiation by Gordon Brown. But now they will have to find ways of squaring the circle – because English MPs are already starting to question whether this is a price they and their constituents are willing to pay.
All of which is, potentially, something of a stroke of luck for David Cameron and a massive headache for Ed Miliband. With Tory MPs demanding an answer to the West Lothian question – the paradox that Scottish MPs are able to vote on matters only affecting English people, whilst the English are barred from meddling in similar issues North of the border – here is a chance to undo the damage of Cameron’s failed efforts at boundary reform. Reducing the number of Scottish MPs is one option, as is forming a Grand Committee for English Affairs in which only English MPs may vote. Neither would guarantee perpetual Tory rule, but both would balance the inbuilt electoral advantage gifted to Labour by the current boundaries. Ed Miliband will have to oppose, being neither strong enough a Leader to override the objections of his party machine nor popular enough in the South to win in either event – but in doing so he will be behaving with naked partisanship, be painted as betraying the English and be abandoning any further claim to his concept of ‘the new politics’. He’s in something of a bind.
English Labour has never really confronted the problems and paradoxes caused by devolution in their heartlands of Scotland and Wales. Now that reckoning is inevitable, but no coherent plan exists. Expect a lot of noise from Labour about the need for ‘radical decentralisation’ to cities and regions as a desperate attempt to avoid any real change to the current Parliamentary set-up. The unfortunate reality, though, is that of the 51 referenda on directly elected mayors in England only 16 cities have said ‘yes’. Furthermore, the last time an attempt was made to devolve power to an English region – the North East – it was convincingly and humiliatingly rejected by voters. The English appetite for ‘radical decentralisation’ is, at best, questionable. Several Labour Council Leaders have also expressed their concerns about such moves – one told us that “Ed Miliband can’t come back up here telling us we need a Mayor, yet again, as if that’s the answer. It’s daft.”
William Hague has been tasked with designing our new constitution; he’s been given until January to redraft the unwritten rules – developed incrementally over 300 years - that govern us. But whatever he comes up with will require the endorsement of Parliament and with the politics in such sharp relief as we head towards May’s General Election, it is difficult to see a consensus being formed. The sheer uncertainty of the situation is ironic, given the outcome of the vote, but palpable.
What is certain, though, is that the Union that was saved last night was not the Union in which we have lived up until this point. It is some kind of hybrid – the exact contours of which are yet to be precisely mapped – and it will require a different form of governance. Vested interests may mean that some cling to the status quo until the last, but the lesson of this emotional and chaotic few months should be clear to any politician of a Unionist bent. It is neither desirable nor sustainable to ignore the constitutional anomalies and quirks that have developed in our country, and which disadvantage one neighbour whilst benefiting another. If we are to avoid further constitutional crises and existential threats to the British state in the medium future, the UK needs a significant retune.