mnmlist: The Disaster of Scottish Independence?

The position of the Labour Party, or at least the leadership and the majority of its members, on the Scottish independence referendum is very clear; it wants a ‘No’ vote. To that end it has been campaigning with Alistair Darling the leading public face of the Better Together campaign, and English MPs heading north of the border to help out. With the referendum now less than a month away it looks as though the party will get its wish with the no camp comfortably ahead in the latest polls albeit with the yes vote rising slightly.

The no campaign has followed the normal tactic in campaigning against change, mobilising what I have previously called the ‘twin miseries of cost and fear’, suggesting that an independent Scotland would struggle economically, might lose the BBC, can’t use the pound, and may, indeed, lose the Queen. However, would Scotland being independent be a bad thing?

Let’s be clear. There are two major reasons why Labour is desperate for a no vote. First, it needs Scottish MPs to contribute to a majority in the House of Commons and, second, it fears a loss of standing on the international stage and the potential loss of our nuclear deterrent.

To explore the impact of Scottish independence on election results, I looked back at every general election from 1992 onwards and recalculated the result removing the Scottish MPs. For ease, I assumed that the non-Scottish results remained the same.

In 1992, Mr. Major would have increased his majority perhaps allowing him more leeway against his Eurosceptics. The 1997 and 2001 Labour landslides would have been repeated with majorities of 139 and 129 rather than the actual 179 and 167. 2005 would have been a bit tighter with a majority of 43 rather than 66. In 2010, however, Scottish Labour MPs were key to denying Mr. Cameron an overall majority. Without them the Tories would have governed alone with a majority of 19. However much we might dislike the present coalition, be in no doubt that a majority Tory government, dependent on the support of significant numbers of Eurosceptics, would have been far worse.

If Scotland does vote for independence then what would be the consequence for Labour? With winning more difficult it would face two choices. The easy one is to continue to follow the logic of appealing to the centre ground which, without Scotland, will have moved to the right. We can anticipate a more right wing party. Quite why Progress hasn’t come out for independence is surprising. Whether this would work or whether it would just leave more voters behind, feeling that no one speaks for them and contributing to an increasing apathy about politics would remain to be seen.

Labour’s bold choice would be to try and protect a space for a social democratic party in Britain by putting reform of our electoral system in the next manifesto. Most experts expect 2015 to be another hung parliament and both Labour and the Liberals could see advantages in pushing PR through parliament before bidding our Scottish friends a fond farewell some time in 2016/17.

What of the other reason why Labour opposes independence; a fear of loss of influence in the world and potential loss of our Trident missiles? There is no doubt that Labour ministers like playing the big man on the world stage just as much as Tories do, from Bevin’s argument for us to acquire a nuclear deterrent in the first place, ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here whatever the costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it’ through to the determination of the present leadership to fund a like-for-like replacement, via Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the Americans. Yes, Labour people like to be at the top table alright, although how much good they do once there is certainly debateable.

Without Scotland, playing the big man becomes more difficult. Not only would we be a smaller country but we might lose access to the Trident base at Faslane unless some agreement can be reached with the Scottish government to retain it. That’s not impossible. After all, the UK played host to US cruise and pershing missiles in the 1980s. However, should the SNP continue to win Scottish elections, they are committed to being nuclear free and, therefore, what remains of the UK would need to find a new home.

That would not be easy, although Devenport is a potential alternative. However, with an additional bill of a minimum of £3.5bn in a time of austerity, and significant local opposition to be expected, a renewed national debate on the desirability of replacement at the same costs on a smaller GDP is likely. Perhaps, finally, we might conclude that there are better things to be spending huge sums of money on than weapons of mass destruction.

In this piece I have concentrated on the impact on the rest of Britain of Scottish independence. But, most important of course, is its impact on Scotland itself. How might it fare? To listen to the debate one would be forgiven for thinking that independence will either bring a utopian land of milk and honey, or reduce Scotland to an impoverished slum unable to educate itself or provide decent healthcare.

The reality, of course, is that Scotland would survive, and be pretty much as it is now for the foreseeable. Let’s accept that Scotland is more left wing than England. The likely outcomes of future Scottish elections are leading roles for Labour or the SNP, both firmly in the social democratic tradition. Conservative government, which Scotland must suffer from time to time as part of the UK, is highly unlikely. Why would Scots not want to separate themselves from their more right wing neighbours?

Will they be as well off independent or part of the union? Probably, in GDP terms, a bit worse off. But, with wealth shared more equally, might the average Scot actually be happier? We know small countries can survive. More than that, they can thrive. If I lived in Scotland I would definitely vote yes. And, if they do, we in England must remember that we can take away their poond, but we cannae tek awa’ their freedom!


Dr. Adam Spencer