An early May column took an advance look at the May 6 elections in the United Kingdom. Now that the results are in and the dust has settled, let’s review what actually happened. And of even greater import, let’s consider where things might go from here.
There were two topics of particular interest in the previous column – the election for all 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament and the byelection for the vacant seat of Hartlepool in England’s northeast. Scotland will be the sole topic here.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party didn’t win the overall majority it wanted. But it did gain and now stands just a single seat short. Further, the Greens won eight seats, providing a comfortable majority for parties committed to a second referendum on Scottish independence.
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This ostensibly sets up a showdown between Sturgeon and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in Westminster. Johnson is opposed to a referendum, citing the fact that the 2014 iteration – which the independence movement lost – was explicitly framed as a “once-in-a-generation” vote.
What happens now?
By law, Johnson holds the upper hand. Approval by the United Kingdom’s Parliament in Westminster is required for a referendum.
Of course, Sturgeon could follow the Catalan precedent and call an unsanctioned vote. But that would doom any prospect of an independent Scotland being admitted to the European Union. Spain, which forcibly suppressed Catalonia’s effort, wouldn’t stand for it.
So Johnson can just sit tight. Sturgeon and her Green allies can accuse him of “standing in direct opposition to the will of the Scottish people.” But it’s ultimately Johnson’s call.
He may, of course, decide that some sort of action is politically wise. Whether it’s flexibility or opportunism, Johnson has form when it comes to adjusting positions.
One of the ideas currently being talked about – albeit not by Johnson or Sturgeon – goes by the suitably ambiguous name of “devo max.”
Although details are imprecise, the essence is devolving more powers and control over domestic Scottish affairs to the Scottish Parliament. While Westminster would still be on the hook for supportive fiscal transfers, the decisions about spending the money would be made in Scotland.
Taken to its furthest point, devo max would reduce Westminster’s Scottish authority to nothing more than foreign affairs and defence. The Bank of England, though, would retain responsibility for acting as lender of last resort to Scotland.
Purportedly, something along these lines will satisfy Scottish nationalists and the independence issue will go away. But that was also the argument for establishing the current Scottish Parliament in 1999.
To quote from the prior election manifesto of the former Labour government that introduced devolution: “The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separation removed.” If anything, it did the opposite, merely whetting the nationalist appetite for more.
Another idea making the rounds is that Westminster should insist on negotiating the details of Scottish independence before agreeing to a referendum. That way, Scottish voters would know what it entailed and Sturgeon wouldn’t be able to skate on the tricky bits. According to one proponent, “This would change the debate from being about the lofty idea of sovereignty to the cold realities of the situation.”
However, it’s hard to see this being practical. A full negotiation would take years and be subject to brinkmanship and rhetorical grandstanding on all sides.
At best, there might be mutual acknowledgement of a few major points. For instance, the currency arrangements for an independent Scotland and the status of any subsequent Bank of England responsibility. And the question of who’d pay state pensions to current Scottish beneficiaries. And the financial impact of ceasing all fiscal transfers.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, the element that rarely gets ventilated publicly.
Virtually all discussion proceeds from the premise that Scottish separation would be a major kick in the teeth for England. The English people, the argument goes, would generally feel diminished and rejected. It would be a huge psychological blow.
I believe that’s a dubious proposition.
Although some English people certainly have a strong emotional attachment to the union, I suspect that, for most, the attachment is skin deep. They’d get over it quickly.
Stir in the fact that Scotland’s secession would enhance the Conservatives’ majority position at Westminster and it’s clear that Johnson holds most of the cards. Not all, just most.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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