This has been Scotland’s debate. It has been both inspiring but sometimes unnerving. Democratic passions awaken the best and some of the worst in us. We have seen it all: excitement, some intimidation, awakening. The groups that come out of this pretty badly are the political leaders: not just in Westminster but in Holyrood also.
Where the ‘yes’ leaders failed to level with the Scottish people about the real consequences of independence, the ‘no’ leaders took risk and uncertainty and turned them into apocalyptic certainties. The latter were aided by a national media hoard. The way of the world is that victors get to write history as if there were a single pathway to the current position and that is exactly what David Cameron et al are doing this morning.
Yet, the victors also have to own their victory. And, this morning, it is the ‘no’ campaign that has to now hold true to its promises.
As aloof cockiness turned to blind panic on the publication of an opinion poll showing ‘yes’ ahead, the ‘no’ campaign threw the kitchen sink at the campaign. In so doing, they also threw in the UK constitution and now we’re in real trouble. ‘The vow’ may go down as ‘no to increased tuition fees’ as monumental political errors made tactically in a campaign. Not only have the party leaders agreed to safeguard the Barnett formula which appears to disproportionately advantage Scotland (though that is open to debate), they have promised Scotland new powers. Unlike 1999, these new powers will not be passed without awakening English discontent at the asymmetry of the relationship. Vague promises of devolution within England will not be enough. There will need to be a more comprehensive agreement.
This morning, David Cameron has linked the provision of these new powers with a new settlement for England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. 'The vow' is contract made with three hidden parties. This is all happening in a general election year. The consequences could not be greater. The political parties are in Catch 22 with three possible scenarios that will begin to crack open UK politics.
The first option is that the UK parties try to fudge it with some fairly cosmetic powers over income tax being transferred to Scotland. This will still lead to demands for a greater English political voice- and the Prime Minister has legitimised this linkage in his statement this morning. Cameron's promise on 'English votes for English laws' may hold back the flood if he can deliver it (and remember he is still committed to the Barnett formula and we don't know what the Liberal Democrats will do yet). UKIP will begin biting at the heels of the major parties and channelling English discontent. Already this morning Nigel Farage is questioning the Barnett formula and insisting on a much wider constitutional settlement; UKIP are in favour of electoral reform. The Tories, already facing defections on their right flank, could become stuck. The re-election of a Conservative or Conservative-led government relies on them eating into the UKIP vote. The fudge scenario could solidify UKIP's support with one or two more potential defections from the Conservatives (especially if Douglas Carswell convincingly holds onto his seat in the Clacton by-election).
Meanwhile, the SNP will point to the weakness of the powers that Scotland is being offered; indeed this morning it has already issued a warning. The ‘yes’ campaign, far from dissipating could then regain some strength. This would then begin to impact Labour. Somewhere around a quarter of Labour’s 2010 vote seems to have voted yes. The SNP could capture some of that support and Labour’s weakening in Holyrood could spread to Westminster. Mutterings about the missed opportunity could then be heard and beyond the SNP. Labour will try to blame the Tories for linking further Scottish devolution to English votes for English laws but will this really wash?
A second scenario is renege. Labour and the Liberal Democrats could reject the sketchy package offered up this morning by David Cameron insisting that English matters are drawn into a UK wide constitutional convention instead. The Tories are unlikely to agree to this given internal dissent and the UKIP threat. There would be a reneging on the vow- certainly before the election. There would then be a blame game between the two major parties. Essentially, this would mean putting the proposals in the ‘too difficult’ box. The price would be that the natural base in favour of independence (over say ‘devo-max’) could grow from a third of the Scottish electorate to over 40 per cent. There would be calls for a new referendum pretty soon. Labour’s decline in Scotland could be accelerated.
The final scenario is that the spirit of ‘the vow’ is honoured. Legislation for very significant devolution of powers to Scotland is published and passed by the General Election. Labour will be able to hold its head high in Scotland and its coalition will begin to rebuild. The SNP will still scream betrayal but it will have little credibility. The ‘yes’ movement will begin to weaken as a semblance of trust is restored in ‘Westminster’. The Barnett formula is safeguarded and grievance is managed. For Scotland and for Labour, this is a golden scenario – initially at least.
There’s a problem though: England. The voice of English grievance has been largely quiet but those of us who look at the under-currents of public attitudes have seen clear signals for a while. Another asymmetric devolution and the grievance will be there for the taking. Conservative backbenchers will feel the hot breath of UKIP on their necks. Labour, while holding on to its support as a consequence of anti-Tory sentiment in the short-term, will find difficulties emerging in the medium term. A crack within the Conservative party would emerge which could become a schism. Labour’s prospects in 2015 would be enhanced but, if elected, it would govern an increasingly divided country to which it had little answer. It could agree to changes that would harm its structural power in the system. The result would then be more stable overall as significant change would be possible but it would harm Labour's party interest vis-à-vis the Conservatives - none of the mainstream parties have ever pursued constitutional changes that have this impact so it would be a first.
‘The vow’ was a colossal mistake. Personally, I have always been in favour of greater powers to Scotland whether devo-(significantly) more or devo-max and still do. But the time to address this was in 2011, not in the panicked final stages of an emotive referendum campaign. The catastrophic strategic error that David Cameron made (and he was under no pressure from the Labour party to do otherwise) was in failing to initiate a process through which a comprehensive constitutional settlement could be accomplished for the whole of the UK. This may have meant delaying the Scottish referendum until after the 2015 election. But then a referendum could have been put to the whole UK for a new, more symmetrical, political process: more powers for Scotland, for England (including its localities, counties and cities), Wales and Northern Ireland. Independence could have been an additional option for Scotland in that referendum.
Instead of more hasty tactical responses to the situation and our constitutional future being determined by a political horse-trade, why not do the right thing for a change? Why not have a two year, open process involving all of civil society rather than just political party factionalism? It will take the decisions out of the election cycle. It will make things difficult in Scotland again in the short term but that could be addressed in the medium term.
Instead of such a more considered approach, the main parties kidded themselves that independence could have been easily seen off and ran the type of campaign that threatened the break-up of the UK. Now we are in a real mess. Political forces have been unleashed that may take some time to calm. As always, muddle through is the way with UK politics. If there is a deal, it is likely to be a tawdry Westminster compromise rather than something driven by civic energy and engagement. Instead of addressing these latent forces up-front, we have waited until the reactor was overheating. It’s going to take a lot of smart engineering, acts of heroism, and oceans of water to cool them down again. Political betting has become increasingly fashionable in recent years. If I were you, I would not put my money on anything in British politics for the next few years – other than on things getting very rocky.
Anthony Painter is the RSA's Director of Institutional Reform.
15:10 update: Labour has made an announcement about a process towards a constitutional convention. It is light on detail such as what basis this process would be established upon (is this a Labour party process?). It has a 'fudge' feel to it but that may just be because there is further detail to added. One concerning aspect of the announcement is a focus on regional devolution. This really isn't a fruitful way forward- people just don't feel a strong attachment to their regions nor would they want another tier of Government. Recently, Labour has been talking more about metros and combined authorities which would seem to have more potential traction. The 'English question' is touched upon but no more. Also, it doesn't explain how this proposal is linked to 'the vow'. However, the emphasis on engagement with citizens and civil society is welcome. Overall, I'd say it's a case of 'watch this space'.