John Harris

Journalist & Author

Whatever the result of Scotland’s referendum, nothing will be the same | John Harris

What will happen if – or more likely, when – the no side wins? Labour in particular has good reason to fear the answer

Tunnelling through the sudden avalanche of coverage of the Scottish independence referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that the prospects for September 2014 are as binary as the question that will be on the ballot paper. If the Scots vote yes, all hell will break loose – but if a majority opt for no, everything will once again go quiet, the union will be glued back together, and most of the English media will once again forget that north of the border actually exists.

But it is not going to work out like that. The referendum campaign is underlining the huge differences between politics as practised in Edinburgh and London. Even if they lose, the yes campaign’s repeated highlighting of the Tories’ illegitimacy in Scotland will have done its work, while the spectacle of Westminster politicians threatening the Scots with blue murder if they go it alone has only increased the sense of the London political class as an alien, oppressive force. Besides, the Scottish referendum is just one part of a much bigger story – of ferment and division that cuts across the UK, and a huge gap between an over-mighty capital and the rest of the country.

Over the next few weeks, the question of what might happen if – or rather, on current figures, when – the no side wins will be brought into much sharper focus. At the Scottish Labour conference later this month, that party’s devolution commission will announce its plans for post-referendum Scotland. Since its interim report last year, those who would like an extension of Holyrood’s powers over such matters as income tax have been clashing with Scottish MPs who want the status quo to remain. Pessimists fear Labour proposing a relatively trifling increase in the Scottish government’s clout, but presenting it as a great leap forward. But over the weekend, there were rumblings about plans not just for new tax powers, but the devolution of such policy areas as housing benefit and welfare-to-work.

If Labour seems conflicted, it’s understandable: its more clued-up people are aware of the Scottish appetite for a boost to self-rule, but at the same time their arguments could harden support for things the party would find petrifying. Recent polling suggests as much: while 31% of Scots believe their parliament should make all decisions that affect Scotland, another 32% support devo max, whereby Westminster’s role would be drastically reduced to only defence and foreign affairs. That does not look like much of a basis for any return to business as usual – particularly if we get another Tory-led government pledged to shred what remains of the welfare state, but also if Labour takes power in Westminster having only tinkered with devolution, and resumes its usual habit of tacking to the right.

Too many Labour politicians want to avert their eyes from this. The Tories claim to be looking at the case for greater devolution via their own commission, but it seems to be running late, and has not yet talked about specifics. The Lib Dems, for what it’s worth, laid out their position 18 months ago in a report by Menzies Campbell: now, thanks to “Campbell II”, they are going to resume the argument for a new federal(ish) structure for the UK, and granting Scotland new powers such as control of income tax rates, while the British government would still see to foreign affairs, defence, VAT – and, crucially, social security.

Unionists might accept this kind of vision as the basis for cross-party agreement, but would it fly? The hated bedroom tax is a totemic issue in Scotland, and if any government arrives in 2015 pledged to tighten the welfare screw further, resentment about Westminster’s hold on policy would skyrocket. Even in the unlikely event that Westminster was left only with foreign affairs, (which no mainstream party advocates, but could conceivably materialise) it would not necessarily heal Scottish wounds: do not forget that Tony Blair’s dire reputation there was sealed by the Iraq war, or that associated resentments about London’s treatment of Scottish army regiments inflamed the sense of Westminster little understanding matters of deep national significance.

If the near-future turns out to be as convulsive as all this suggests, the debate will be as much about England – and Wales, and Northern Ireland – as Scotland. Quite apart from what increased Scottish devolution would entail for the latter two countries’ arrangements, any post-referendum boost would surely push the so-called West Lothian question – essentially, what Scottish MPs are doing voting on exclusively English matters – to breaking point. Does anyone really suppose that granting new powers to Holyrood would leave that debate pretty much as it is? This is why so many Labour people, in Scotland and beyond, are terrified. Tories, by contrast, see a watershed coming, and would presumably rejoice if it arrived: a plan to reduce the power of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs was in their 2010 manifesto, and last year it was reported that Oliver Letwin was leading work on a decisive plan for giving English MPs exclusive control of English matters.

Can you hear the sound of constitutional explosions yet? What that would mean for a future Labour government is mind-boggling: the maths is finely balanced, but it would threaten the prospect of the party being in office, but not in power, recurrently surrendering control of its programme to the Tories. Consider also another scenario: eight months after the Scottish referendum, with the debate about further devolution in full flow, the Tories win a majority of seats and/or votes in England, but Labour takes office thanks to MPs sent from Wales and Scotland. Tories would go ballistic, and they would have a point.

And so to a part of this puzzle that has been largely unexplored, which even a radical federalist solution would not solve. The Scottish referendum is the most dramatic manifestation yet of the estrangement of London from parts of the country that think in very different ways. The Tories endlessly fret about their demise in the north of England. To some extent, the rise of Ukip is based on an overlooked east-west English divide, and such counties as Norfolk and Lincolnshire feeling as marginalised by Westminster as the UK’s old industrial heartlands.

It may take different forms, but we all know what has fed this countrywide disaffection: the rise of a homogenous, metropolitan class; the domination of Britain by the City; and Tory and Labour governments that have taken power on a minority share of the vote, but then strut around as if we all gave them our support. More devolution will exacerbate such tensions, and if the Tories win in 2015 they could explode – but we should not discount the prospect of a Labour government also making things worse. One hesitates to say something so sweeping, but if the British political genius amounts to our ability to avoid great schisms and allow our institutions to calmly evolve with changing circumstances, that talent may be about to face its greatest challenge in centuries. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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