Short Cuts

John Lanchester

The general election of 2015 will be unique in contemporary British history for coming at the end of a fixed-term Parliament. This has had the predictable consequence of giving us a run-up to the election so protracted that it has already begun, with the parties titivating their policies, importing electoral gurus and covertly making plans to book advertising space. None of this is new: indeed, not even the gurus are entirely new, since the genius behind the Tories in 2015 is Lynton Crosby, who was also the genius behind Michael Howard’s campaign in 2005 (that was the ‘dog-whistle’ campaign, with carefully provocative posters attached to the slogan, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’). Crosby’s return reminded me of the Private Eye joke about Peter Mandelson, who in 1992 masterminded ‘Labour’s brilliantly successful electoral defeat’. The whole prospect is reassuringly the-same-but-different, the way general elections always are.

There is, though, one aspect of the 2015 contest which is genuinely new and not just potentially disruptive, but unprecedented. That is the prospect of a Scottish Yes vote in this September’s referendum on independence. This would have an enormous range of consequences for many aspects of life in the UK, and these consequences would take years, perhaps decades to be fully manifest; but one of the most immediate would be its impact on the 2015 election and the composition of Parliament. The issue is a simple one: what happens to all the Scottish MPs?

The plan is that negotiations for full independence would take eighteen months, and Scotland would become an independent country in March 2016. It’s obvious that after full independence there won’t be any Scottish MPs in Westminster. (Actually, there may well be quite a few, but they’ll be representing constituencies in the future UK, or fUK. Just to be clear, from now on when I refer to Scottish MPs, I mean MPs representing Scottish constituencies.) The problematic period is the ten months between the general election on 7 May 2015 and full independence in March 2016, during which there will be 59 Scottish MPs in Westminster, forming part of the legislature of a state they are about to leave.

It’s reasonable to wonder how likely this would be to cause trouble. At the moment Scotland’s 59 MPs are divided as follows: 41 Labour, 11 Lib Dem, 6 SNP, 1 Tory. The Scots, even while voting for the SNP at home, have continued to send an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs to Westminster. Since you believe in Westminster, go to Westminster, seems to be the idea. (It’s the opposite of what England does in sending UKIP MEPs to Brussels.) If we strip out those 59 seats from the 2010 Parliament, we are left with David Cameron’s Tories having an outright majority, and no need for coalition government.

If we move backwards through history, it’s unusual for the Scottish electorate to be such a decisive shaping force for the composition of Parliament: Thatcher would have won a bigger landslide in 1983, and Blair would have won a smaller one in 1997, but the outcomes of most general elections would have been, broadly speaking, the same. The future, though, is more likely to resemble 2010 than those other elections. The voting share of the big parties has gone sharply downwards, and the Tory vote in Scotland has collapsed, and both of those factors make 2010 a plausible template for 2015 and what may be the last ever UK general election.

At the moment, the bookies make Labour the narrow favourites to be the biggest party in Parliament after the 2015 election. From the political and constitutional point of view, this is the most complicated of all the possible outcomes, especially if Labour were reliant for its victory on those 41 (more or less) Scottish seats. How likely is Miliband to have a majority bigger than 41? The overwhelming majority of government business in that period would concern negotiations over the separation of Scotland and fUK. It would be deeply strange if the government of fUK was being kept in power over that period by MPs who would disappear from Parliament the second full independence arrives, in March 2016. These negotiations are likely – I’d have said, certain – to have the emotional tenor common to most divorces. At a minimum, Scottish MPs with any role to play in the negotiations would be accused of all sorts of mixed motives and hidden agendas.

There are other possible outcomes for the 2015 election, and quite a few of them involve Scottish MPs playing a crucial role in the last ever UK Parliament, and the ensuing negotiations. A very narrow lead for the Conservatives – which is the bookies’ second favourite option – could easily see them back in power as part of a coalition again, relying to some degree on the 12 Scottish seats they currently hold (1 Tory, 11 LibDems).

One prospective solution has been floated by Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP at Westminster: ‘I think there is a very good case for putting the UK general election back by a year.’ That is almost dementedly high-handed and impractical, an obvious non-starter of an idea. It is also illegal, given the existence of the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, or at least it’s illegal without two-thirds of all MPs voting to change the law.

The trouble is, the alternatives are no better. Another solution, equally high-handed, would be for Scottish MPs to lose their role at Westminster at the time of the 2015 election. This is the outcome which has been argued for by the Tory MP John Stevenson, who is Scottish, but represents a constituency in the north of England. ‘You can’t have a situation where the government of the United Kingdom is determined by the representation from Scotland, which could then have significant influence in the subsequent negotiations,’ Stevenson has said. ‘Why should the government for 90 per cent of the population be determined by a part of the UK that has just chosen to become a foreign country? That would potentially cause a constitutional crisis.’ This proposal has the virtue of complete clarity, but the disadvantage of being anti-democratic and wrong in both principle and practice.

If clarity is the goal, perhaps the least bad version of events would be for Parliament to dissolve itself immediately on the occasion of a Yes vote. That seems to me fair enough, because if Scotland votes Yes, Cameron should resign, since the independence referendum was his brilliant idea in the first place, and he would go down in history as the posh boy who was so clever-stupid he broke the Union. There would then be an election for a short eighteen-month Parliament, to run until full independence, and then a subsequent Scot-free election for the first fUK Parliament. During that short Parliament, there would be a legally binding version of the West Lothian question, with Scottish MPs forbidden from voting on matters affecting England and Wales, including arrangements between fUK and Scotland.

One problem with that: it’s almost certain not to happen. Because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, two-thirds of MPs would have to vote for a change in the law, and most of them would have every incentive not to do so. Voters have a well-known dislike of voting in elections which are imposed on them by fiat, and there would be a powerful impulse to punish whomever was seen to be responsible for the two-election solution. Instead, it seems to me that the most likely outcome is for Parliament to bumble along as if everything were normal up to and including the 2015 election. The chamber would operate a bodged and half-baked version of the West Lothian exemption, with Scottish MPs not taking a formal role in the running of fUK, but at the same time playing a crucial role in keeping the government in power. Then, in March 2016, there would be another general election for the first fUK Parliament. That election would be necessary because of the fundamental shifts in the balance of power which would be caused by the disappearance of the Scottish MPs. This would be horribly inelegant as an answer to a profound constitutional and political crisis, but then all of these possible outcomes are pretty messy. In essence, the government has only one plan: for Scotland to vote No. Otherwise it’s fUK by name, fUKd by nature.