Harold Wilson famously observed that ‘a week is a long time in politics”. Well, we now have a week to go before the Scottish Referendum, and my hunch is that it will be the longest week in recent history. The Westminster political establishment has finally woken up to the thought that the Scots might actually do it! and blind panic would be a polite euphemism for their belated reaction to that terrible thought. Today the three party leaders are on their (separate) ways to Scotland to plead with the inhabitants not to break up the United Kingdom. Cameron has a pathetic appeal to the Scots in today’s Daily Mail, which makes me wonder what planet he inhabits. The idea that Scottish voters would be moved by anything in the Daily Mail is bizarre. The SDP leadership must be wondering if they are dreaming, because every intervention by Cameron in the debate has the immediate effect of boosting the ‘Yes’ vote.
What’s bugging the Westminster elite, of course, is the realisation that if the Scots actually do vote to opt out of the ‘United’ Kingdom, then the consequences for the rump that remains are profound. In particular, the post-imperial hubris that has enabled Westminster to pretend that Britain was still a world power, with a ‘seat at the top table”, will finally be exploded. Without Scotland, for example, UK-lite will struggle to maintain its fleet of nuclear submarines (once seen as the guarantor of that top-table seat). And the puncturing of post-imperial delusions will, no doubt, be a good thing.
But other consequences of Scottish independence will be less palatable. Cameron will be ousted as the Tory leader who conceded the vote that led to the break-up of the UK. He will most likely be replaced by Boris Johnson in a Tory party in which the so-called Euro-sceptics (i.e. Euro-phobes) hold the upper hand. Scottish secession also means that the Labour party (which has always had a lot of Scottish seats at Westminster) will never again be able to form a majority government. A Johnson-led Tory party will have an inbuilt majority in England and Wales, and will move to take the UK out of the EU. Which means that the ‘soft’ border between Northern Ireland (still part of UK-lite) and the Irish Republic will once again become a hard border — with frontier controls and all the other paraphernalia deemed necessary to keep foreigners out.
And then there’s the transition problem. If the Scots vote Yes, then Scotland will become a foreign country on March 16, 2016. But the next UK general election is in May 2015 — which means that for 10 months Scottish MPs will sit in Westminster, the government of which will be negotiating the details of the divorce with the Scottish government.
And so on. You can see why the folks in Westminster are now changing their underpants twice a day (as they say in Australia).
Which is why the Referendum really does deserve the adjective “historic”.