The prospect of Scots separatists winning next Thursday’s referendum has belatedly shaken English complacency in many ways that will thrill hardcore SNP supporters.
One that ought to trouble them is the fear that Labour may never win power again at Westminster without those vital Scottish votes. “Permanent Tory rule” in rUK, as George Galloway warns.
But is the fear justified? Not necessarily. As with much of the yes/no debate that has engrossed (some) Scots for decades, those who speak with exaggerated confidence on both sides are bluffing. All we do know is that much will change throughout Scotland and rUK – and in ways few will have predicted. The Tory-Labour duopoly – 97% of the votes cast in 1951, just 65.1% in 2010 – has been crumbing for 30 years. The looming breakup might finally trigger radical realignment and sweeping constitutional reform.
Only two post-war British elections would have had different outcomes if Scotland had been a separate state as well as nation. In 1964, Labour’s hair’s-breadth win after 13 years of Conservative government culminating in the Profumo affair would have been wiped out, leaving Scottish PM Sir Alec Douglas-Home clinging on, frail and exhausted. He was lucky to lose.
Something similar happened in the double-election year of 1974. In February, Labour’s Harold Wilson won but Ted Heath actually got more votes and, discounting the Scottish MPs, would have had 15 more seats, but no majority. In October, Wilson failed to win a working majority; even without Scotland Labour would have been the largest party.
Taking out the 59 Scottish seats, of course, lowers the majority bar, and in 2010 David Cameron would have got an outright majority of nine instead of a coalition.
The speculation needn’t end there. Had Heath won his mandate in 1974 to beat the miners’ strike and done so more gently (as he wished) than Margaret Thatcher did a decade later, a more consensual model for economic reform might have prevailed as North Sea oil came ashore.
That could have been important for Britain’s future. No Maggie, no collapse of “hated” Scots Tories to just one MP, no mass defection of Tartan Tories to the SNP … so no Thatcherite rift and no independence? It is a great counter-factual. But what now for Cameron and Ed Miliband if Scotland goes?
The Tories have been torn for decades over Europe, and Ukip is eating into their vote. With the BNP self-destructing, marginalised working-class Labour voters are now looking at Nigel Farage, despite his City suits and saloon-bar style, as the only “genuine” leader in a generation of perceived Oxbridge fakes. Will the Greens eat into Labour’s core vote too, as the German SDP’s breakaway left party – Die Linke – does, and Roy Jenkins’s false-dawn SDP did in the 80s?
Will even the threat of collapse force Cameron to confront and beat his ageing, monomaniac MPs and activists? Will similar fears force Miliband to go back to his party’s grassroots, as leftwing analysts hope? Will the Blairite view that elections are won on the centre ground prevail after another defeat in 2015? Will both parties stick with their globalist agenda or embrace a protectionist/nationalist one?
Will we even see the introduction of PR to reflect the new multi-party realities and permanent coalition? Constitutional reform that includes devolved power to the English regions, linked to Westminster via a German-style regional upper house? Reforms that point rUK decisively towards Scandinavian social democracy? Or US-style capitalism? EU-style protectionism? Or illiberal rightwing nationalism as China ascends to hegemonic status?
If the roof falls in on the 307-year UK at a time of rapid global change, it may all be up for grabs as it has not been for a century. The status quo will begin to look very shaky.
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