The Morning After
The early Scottish referendum results didn’t look good for the would-be dividers of the kingdom. My pro-independence Orcadian friend, down in London for a wine fair, went to bed before three a.m., disconsolate, not long after a furious thunderstorm lit up the deserted streets and made drums of the cars. I stayed awake long enough for the moment around four when my home town of Dundee went heavily for Yes, swiftly followed by another Yes in West Dunbartonshire. Suddenly the two camps were neck and neck.
It didn’t last. Almost at once, No results came in from the two traditionally Nationalist areas close to Dundee, Perth and Angus. If the districts that had reliably delivered votes for the pro-independence SNP for so long didn’t want independence, what chance was there it was going to happen? Just before five, Glasgow delivered its underwhelming Yes, and I turned in. I got up a few hours later to find my friend sitting on the sofa, staring biliously at the TV, with an expression as if he’d been forced to swallow an entire bin-end of corked Syrah.
‘How’s it looking?’ I asked.
‘They’re talking about new powers for London!’ he spat.
It was true. In the space of a few hours, a passionately fought campaign for and against Scottish independence from England, an unprecedented democratic mobilisation of an entire people, had mutated into a burgeoning campaign for English independence from Scotland.
The pundits in the BBC studio kept the illusion of a possible Yes victory going for as long as they could. But from the moment the first results came in, it was obvious the No voice was more powerful than the polls predicted, and you could see interest in Scottish politics draining away in favour of discussion of a new round of Westminster battles.
When David Cameron ambled out of 10 Downing Street in the morning, it was not, as seemed possible a few days ago, to resign, having ignominiously ‘lost’ Scotland, but to announce the launch, effectively, of an English devolution campaign – to challenge the prevailing anomaly in Britain’s parliament whereby MPs elected to Westminster from Scottish constituencies get to vote on certain issues affecting only England, such as health, education and transport, but their English counterparts don’t get to vote on corresponding issues in Scotland.
It could all come to nothing. It could end up with a terrible mess. Or it could end up, in theory, with the complete federalisation of Britain: with the creation of an English-only parliament to match its counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, dealing with everything from taxation to the English NHS; and a British parliament, dealing with defence, foreign affairs and fiscal matters. This ‘English-only’ parliament could even be several parliaments – parliaments of London, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, for instance.
This is heady stuff, and seems an unlikely attraction for Cameron, were it not for the immediate political dividend of having the potential to destabilise his political opponents just by talking about it. Pursuit of English devolution would distract the Lib Dems, setting them off towards federalism like ferrets after a rabbit. The idea of excluding Scottish, Welsh and Ulster MPs from decisions on economics and social policy in England would dismay and confuse Labour and, if it came about, weaken their power in the country as a whole.
Most attractively for Cameron, it would enable him to woo Ukip supporters by presenting himself as the champion of England against a remote, vaguely socialistic authority which imposed its rules and values against an England that rejected them: Scotland, or, to be more precise, Britain-unduly-influenced-by-Scotland. How bizarre and absurd, and how tragic for Scotland, that having voted for continued belonging to the United Kingdom, this small country might find itself cast by the Conservative leadership as a convenient surrogate for Brussels – a safe sublimation of Europe to placate the little Englanders in its own ranks.