Whether or not Scotland would vote for independence is debatable. Polls consistently show a majority against, although there are always a substantial number of “don’t
knows”. In a referendum held only in Scotland with the YES campaign headed by the Scottish Numpty Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond and the NO campaign led by Scottish
non-entities or people from outside of Scotland such as Cameron, it is possible that a YES result might be obtained, especially if there is a low turnout and there is no minimum turnout required for the referendum to have force. If the referendum is held before the conditions for independence are decided, as Salmond wants, the chances of a YES vote would be considerably increased because voters would be buying into the idea of independence based on the wildly irresponsible SNP fantasy of a Scotland made rich by oil revenues rather than the reality.
From his public comments David Cameron appears to accept that the results of a referendum held in Scotland would be binding because he stated in June 2011 that
if a referendum is held he will campaign as vigorously as possible for a NO. But it is not in Cameron’s gift to say that a referendum will be binding, because the Act of Union of 1707 would require repeal. Before any referendum is held Cameron would have to persuade the Westminster Parliament to pass a Bill which granted Scotland independence in the event of a YES vote, with the YES triggering a repeal of the Act of Union. As a matter of practicality it would also have to contain the conditions under which Scotland would be granted independence, because it is improbable in the extreme that the House of Commons would give an absolute promise of independence, that is, allow the Scots to vote for independence without the conditions being agreed in advance of the referendum. (If the Commons did perpetrate such an act of folly it would create untold strife between the Westminster and the SNP because it is a fair bet that Salmond would ask for impossible terms). What could happen is that there are either two referenda, one on an undefined independence with a second after conditions have been agreed between Westminster and Edinburgh, or a single referendum on an undefined independence with a vote in the Commons on conditions for independence after these have been agreed between Westminster and Edinburgh. This would be the disadvantage of the rest of the UK because the SNP would be arguing for favourable conditions with the propaganda tool of a YES vote behind them.
It is unclear where Cameron stands on the agreeing of conditions for independence, viz: “ He [Cameron] has made it clear that the referendum question would have to be straightforward rather than the multiple-choice version favoured by the SNP: Cameron wants the voters to be asked a simple question, along the following lines “Do you wish Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?” Last night a Westminster source with inside knowledge of the new hard – line stance being adopted by Mr Cameron commented: “Mr Salmond must be honest and straightforward with the Scottish people in his phrasing of the question for the referendum. If he isn’t we will conduct the referendum.” ‘(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/8565826/David-Cameron-might-take-Scottiish-independence-referendum-off-Alex-Salmond.html).
This does not indicate whether the conditions would be decided before or after the referendum, but, as mentioned previously, it is unlikely that the Commons would accept a binding commitment without knowing the conditions. Again, the Commons would have control of what happened because if Cameron wished for the Coalition to run a referendum new legislation by Westminster would be needed. If Cameron takes charge of the referendum it would provide the SNP with a recruiting sergeant for independence because they could march under their favourite banner of “the English are oppressing us”.
Bt whatever the result of a referendum, there would still be the need for legislation to dissolve the Union and it is by no means certain that the Coalition Government or any other would be able to force such a Bill through the House of Commons. There are three reasons for this. The first is the self-interest of the Labour and LibDem parties, both of which rely disproportionately on Scottish seats in their representation in the Commons. At the 2010 General election 41 out of 257 Labour seats were in Scotland, as were 11 of the Libdems total of 57.
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/scotland/8663161.stm). If the 59 Scottish seats were removed from the House of Commons, it would be very difficult for Labour ever to form a government by themselves. A coalition of Labour and the LIbDems would perhaps stand a better chance of forming a government in a rump UK, but it would not be that much better , especially in the disillusionment of LibDem voters in the aftermath of the formation of the Coalition which has seen them both break election promises, most notably their written pledge on university tuition fees, and attach their
name to many unpopular policies such as the rapid reduction of public debt and further
privatisation of the NHS. There are also sincere unionists in both the Labour and the LibDem parties who would vote against on principle.
But it is not only Labour and the LibDems who might vote against a Bill to dissolve the union. It would be in the interest of the Tory party to see an independent Scotland because it would greatly increase the likelihood a Tory Government in the rump UK. But the Tory Party is by history and inclination a unionist party. Some Tory MPs might feel strongly enough to vote against the Bill on principle. The fact that Cameron is firmly in the unionist camp would give individual Tories, especially the backbenchers, encouragement to vote independence down.
The Bill could also be rejected by the Commons if were unduly generous to Scotland, for example, it did not require Scotland to take a share proportionate to their population of UK National debt at the time of independence.
It is also a moot point whether MPs for Scottish seats would be allowed to vote on the repeal of the Act of Union. If they argue to be allowed to vote it could be argued that if the whole of the UK, as represented by the Commons, is voting on the matter, the referendum should include the whole of the UK. There is also the possibility that before the conditions for independence as agreed between the Government and the SNP (or
any other Scottish government) are accepted as binding, they should be put to a referendum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would be both reasonable and emasculate any Commons objection to conditions.
There is also a potential delay of several years lying in wait in the Lords. If the Lords rejected either a Bill enacting Scottish independence or a Bill laying down conditions thought to be unacceptable, the Parliament Act would have to be used which entails both a statutory delay of one year and possibly (although this would be highly unusual) further substantial delay when the Bill returned to the Commons for re-presenting to the Lords. It is also worth remembering that when any Bill goes to the Lords initially there are plenty of opportunities delay matters.
What would happen if the Commons rejected Scottish independence after a Yes vote? It would depend to a substantial degree on the turnout and the size of the Yes majority. If the
turnout and majority were small, say 35 per cent voting and a majority of a five per cent or less, it would be uncomfortable for the Government and would provide a very strong propaganda tool for the SNP and any other party supporting independence to either raise the number in Scotland wanting independence at any price or to extract serious concessions from the Government which could be anything from the continuance of the Barnett Formula and massive funds for infrastructure projects in Scotland to arrangements leading to an independence lite or devolution max settlement. The latter course would be much more likely because the Alex Salmond has been pushing independence lite or devolution max very heavily since the SNP won a majority in the Scottish parliament in May 2011.
If a referendum resulted in a low turnout but a large majority voting for independence, it would become more difficult for the Commons to vote against independence. It would also give the SNP more bargaining power to reach independence lite or devolution max. A high turnout with a narrow majority would probably give Salmond less bargaining power because the Government and the Commons would be able to point to the large minority of the electorate voting against and claim that such a serious step as independence needed a solid majority of the people behind it.
The most problematic situation would be a high turnout with a substantial majority for independence. That would cause problems for both the Government and the SNP. The Government and the Commons would not be able to argue that the vote was not conclusive because either only a small proportion of the population had voted for independence in the case of a low turnout or that almost as many had voted NO as had voted Yes in a high turnout. The difficulty for the SNP would be that with a clear mandate the pro-independence Scots would not accept anything less than full and unambiguous independence. The other great unknowable is what the political situation at Westminster will be in 2015 or whenever a referendum is held. The Coalition Government may say that they will not go to the country until 2015, but there is no certainty about that. Even if the Bill stipulating that Parliaments must run their full term is passed, it will still have a mechanism for going early, for example, sixty per cent of the Commons voting for dissolution. The relationship between the Coalition partners is looking increasingly fractious and the News Corp phone hacking scandal bids fair to both make that worse,
strengthen Labour and conceivably force Cameron from the Premiership as more and scandalous associations between Cameron and News Corp power players and journalists comes out.
If the Parliament is dissolved before any referendum is held, that will potentially scupper any agreement which Cameron (or any successor) may have made with Salmond. Any new Government would not be bound to honour such an agreement and even if an Act is on the Statute Book which provides for a referendum and has a clause which repeals the Act of Union, a new Government would still be under no obligation to honour it – a simple Bill repealing it would be all that is needed to prevent a referendum.
To add to the Westminster confusion, Lords Reform is still on the cards. This will not be
reform but in effect the abolition of the Lords and its replacement with a new House. No one knows what the relationship will be between that House and the Commons. If it is elected in whole or part it would be difficult to deny it great powers than the Lords has. Those might be greater powers of veto, amendment of Commons legislation or delay of
An elected second chamber or one based on appointments to represent a greater range of British society than the Lords presently does would have a very different make-up from the Lords. This could mean a second chamber much less responsive to the prevailing British political elite culture and mores. Such a chamber might well be hostile to the idea of placating Scotland, as Cameron seems to be determined to do, because growing English resentment of the privileges given to the Celtic Fringe and the subordination of English interests would be likely to be expressed more strongly in a reformed second chamber, especially a an elected one under proportional; representation, than in the Lords which is overwhelmingly the creature of the mainstream political parties.
Speaking of English interests and resentment, there is the undelivered to date promise of “English votes on English laws” which Cameron made before the 2010 election. If that promise is honoured before a referendum on Scottish independence, especially if an English Grand Committee is formed, that would provide a focus and vehicle to either oppose such a referendum or influence the conditions for independence or the nature of the referendum to be held.
There is also the possibility that the SNP may cease to have a majority in the Scottish Parliament or even to be part of a Scottish Government before any referendum is held or conditions are decided. This is not that improbable because the SNP has the referendum on independence pencilled in for 2015, the very end of the present Parliament even if it runs its full term.
If the referendum has not been held by then there will be another set of elections to the Scottish parliament. The SNP could easily lose their majority because the economic realities are beginning to strike home in Scotland. The Brown Government agreed to delay cuts to Scotland’s block grant for a year and the Coalition honoured this when they formed a Government in May 2010 (http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/scotland/Tories-to-delay-cuts-for.6168741.jp).
This means that it is only in this financial year (2011/12) that cuts are occurring. But because the 2010/11 cuts were delayed, the cuts this financial year includes those plus any others made since the Coalition gained office. All the Scottish government did was put off
If a situation is reached where a referendum has been held and a YES vote achieved but the House of Commons refuses to pass the necessary legislation or a referendum is held without conditions being agreed in advance and the Westminster Government is unable to agree terms with Holyrood, what would be the position? The Westminster Parliament and Government would hold all the aces if they chose to play them because the Scottish government is dependent on Westminster raising the money to fund them. Even if Scotland declared UDI (wildly improbable) they would not be able to raise anything like the money they would need to fund everything in Scotland that is now funded by the taxpayer. To take one example, the Centre for Economic and Business Research predicted in 2009 that by 2013 67 per cent of Scottish GDP would come from public spending (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5489654.ece).
Anything short of UDI and Westminster could simply strangle Scotland by, for example, reducing the Treasury block grant to Scotland to the per capita level of England. That would remove around £8 billion pa from the Scottish government’s revenue. The only question at issue is whether the Westminster Government would have the will to take such action.