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After the Referendum, nothing will ever be the same again

After the Referendum, nothing will ever be the same again

🕔15.Sep 2014

In the second part of our Scottish Referendum series, Paul Dale looks at what might happen to Cameron and Miliband – and more importantly to the cause of devolution in England and its cities and regions. 

For David Cameron, a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum would amount to utter humiliation.

It won’t matter whether the majority for independence is tiny. As Alex Salmond has noted, a victory by a single vote will be enough and we can expect negotiations leading to the break-up of the UK to begin the very next day.

It is unclear whether the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party can survive losing part of the Union on his watch, but in any case other events may rapidly make the prime minister’s position untenable.

Mr Cameron will be dreading the Clacton by-election, due on October 9, where Tory defector Douglas Carswell is hoping to retain the seat and become a Ukip MP. Mr Carswell is on course to win according to opinion polls, an outcome that would trigger turmoil within the Tory party and place Mr Cameron under intense pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his party seven months before the General Election.

If Scottish independence is bad news for the Tories, it’s an absolutely horrific prospect for Labour.

Labour has had a majority of Scottish seats at every General election since 1955. If Labour hadn’t won 41 seats in Scotland at the 2010 election, Mr Cameron would probably have been able to form an administration without the help of the Liberal Democrats.

Put simply, it would make it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for Labour to gain an outright majority and form a government if Scottish MPs no longer sat in the House of Commons.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, toured Scotland as the referendum grew closer with the message that he felt responsible for saving the Union and a call for all Labour supporters to vote ‘no’. Although Ed didn’t spell it out, the fact is that his party’s strength north of the border is such that a yes vote can only be achieved if Labour supporters switch to Mr Salmond in sufficient numbers.

This raises another tricky constitutional issue. If the Scots do vote yes the formal declaration of independence will not take place until March 2016. The next General Election is in May 2015 and will be fought on the current parliamentary boundaries, with the Scottish seats included even if the country has voted for independence.

There would appear to be two options. The first is to delay the General Election for a year, which would require special legislation. The second is to go ahead as planned, but immediately bar Scottish MPs from voting on legislation about England and Wales and expel them from the House of Commons on the day that independence is declared.

The second option seems by far the most likely, but does raise another fascinating prospect. Mr Miliband, were he to lead the largest party after the 2015 General Election, might be able to form a government, but it is unlikely he’d still have a majority following the departure of 40-odd Scottish MPs.

That would leave Labour scrabbling around to do deals with minor parties or, more likely, leave the door open for the Conservatives to form a government.

And finally in the long list of known unknowns, there is the matter of English devolution. If the Scots vote for independence, should there be an English parliament? Should English regions and city regions be given additional powers and budgets? Will the Welsh campaign for full independence?

A recent Ipsos Mori poll for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust found that 22 per cent of respondents favoured an English parliament, while 33 per cent said the House of Commons should continue to legislate, but only English MPs should be allowed to vote on laws affecting England.

There is a growing band of opinion wrapping itself around the idea that ‘nothing will be the same again’ irrespective of whether Scotland votes for independence. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, backed a report by the IPPR think tank calling for the transfer of widespread tax and spend powers to major English cities and regions.

For Eric Pickles, the Tory Communities Secretary, the IPPR report appeared to be a step too far along the road to decentralisation. Pickles warned: “There may be some role for combined authorities on a strategic level to promote economic development and transport, but there is a real risk they will suck power upwards away from local councils and local taxpayers.”

In a not entirely unexpected return to mainstream Conservative thinking of the 1990s with its inherent suspicion of local government, Pickles added that localism must “not be a fig leaf for hitting hard-working people with a new range of municipal stealth taxes”.

Meanwhile, another think tank, ResPublica, proposed that the Greater Manchester Authority should lead the English drive towards devolution and be given tax-raising powers and complete control over spendin g within five years.

In Yorkshire a campaign for devolution is building up steam.

The Yorkshire First pressure group has written to MPs saying that it expects movement on the devolution front following the Scottish referendum: “Yorkshire has a population of five million, an economy twice that of Wales. But with the powers of neither.

“How will we be represented? How can regions such as Yorkshire, be adequately represented? Our region needs to be part of the discussions. Others do too. But we have no voice. Neither do other regions of England.”

Scottish independence truly is a Genie that once let out of the bag cannot be put back in. And at the risk of mixing metaphors, the problem with opening Pandora’s Box is that no one can be quite certain of the consequences that follow.

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