It may be a rare phrase to use but Adam Ingram is right. Yes, the former Armed Forces Minister has had a rare moment of lucidity. He says a narrow Yes will result in desperate attempts by Unionist MPs to reverse the decision. I believe he’s right.
What we mustn’t forget is just how much the British state values Scotland. It’s what, in their ham-fisted way, they are trying to tell us by pleading that things will only get worse after independence. They need us to stay because of our historical net contribution to the Exchequer – also a reason why Brussels will shy away from blocking our path – because we are extremely useful for training troops and fighter pilots as well as housing nuclear subs and because losing Scotland is a massive credibility hit for the global reputation of the UK. Our departure really does shrink the UK in the eyes of the world and retaining the Union underscores Britain’s international standing. The truth is that England isn’t nearly as sure of itself as the Simon Heffers and Kelvin McKenzies pretend and the English people aren’t really patriotically English so much as proudly British.
There will be a kind of panic sweeping Whitehall if Scotland goes ahead and does it and, when they can no longer control events, the guardians of Britishness will revert to sabotage. In those circumstances, you can throw democracy out of the window and with it the Edinburgh Agreement. It’s worth as much as David Cameron wants it to be and if voices resisting Scotland’s democratic wish are loud and persuasive enough, we know from experience that Cameron will buckle. We come up against the iron rule of the British state – that power, all power, is retained at Westminster. Forget the Holyrood Parliament and your saltire flags. Read the government’s own legal advice issued earlier this year and see how the Crown in Parliament is the font of all authority. Parliament at Westminster can do anything it likes up to and including abolishing Holyrood in one sitting. Edinburgh Agreement? Don’t make me laugh.
So what will be the arguments deployed? First, that a tiny percentage like one, two or three points is not enough to embark on major constitutional change. Apart from the devastating impact on the Scots, is it really fair to destroy the United Kingdom and damage the interests of 90 per cent of the population on the basis of such a miniscule majority?
Also, exit polls will confirm what will have been apparent for months before the vote, that there is a significant number of voters opting for Yes but who really want Devo Max. That number, of those voting for independence but not really wanting it, will be used to justify holding off from accepting the result. They will then question the turnout.
In other circumstances you could imagine the world community – at least the democratic part – howling in protest at London and no doubt some will. But even Scotland’s friends across the Atlantic, in continental Europe and Scandinavia are far from convinced this is the right path for a long-integrated Unionist Scotland. They will support on the basis of a convincing win but, if there’s a wafer-thin majority and London is making clear this is a big issue on which friends are expected to remain neutral?
In the meantime, we can expect the whole tone from London to change as they whiz into Devo Max mode, offering virtually everything the Nationalists ask for, short of the end of Britain. This will be unbelievably messy. There is an anti-Scot, anti-Europe, right-wing cohort in England who want rid of Scotland and there will be many, many more very angry Scots asking what you’re supposed to do when democracy fails you. (There are several very dangerous answers to this question.)
On the other hand, Ingram’s other point has resonance too – that there will be an identifiable group shaken to the core by the implications of that Yes vote and who will be malleable to reversing their vote…and open to a second referendum, possibly?
This scenario reminds me of one of my early reflections when London first poked its nose into this whole referendum affair. I never understood their thinking. Viewed from London, Salmond is a distant warlord running his own show so let him conduct a so-called referendum on his own terms while London disowns it. If it is a No, then he humiliates himself and it’s over. If, on the other hand, he gets a narrow Yes, there is absolutely no reason for London to do anything about it. They simply say that Scotland doesn’t have the powers to conduct the referendum and that Salmond planned it as yet another grievance issue.
If the Yes was decisive, then Cameron could open talks to see what might be arranged in terms of additional powers and, as I wrote a few posts ago, it has been confirmed to me that he was ready to deal with Cameron on something short of independence. If all that failed, Cameron could take control and say he will either run a referendum across Britain first and also separately in Scotland or just agree a formulation – as he eventually did – to allow Holyrood to stage it. All along, he buys time. Instead, he was drawn into the whole process and ended up endorsing it and conferring legal authority which makes it harder for him to pull back. But, as Ingram implies, when the British state is threatened, you’ll need more than one per cent to hold them back.
A narrow Yes could be just the beginning.