Now that the dust is settling, maybe it’s time for reflection.
First of all, the choice of the Scottish people is a tribute to their sound common sense — despite the blandishments — and later the pressure and threats — from the Yes campaign. The fact that the result defied predictions and was much more decisive than opinion polls indicated suggests that some voters preferred not to say what they really thought. “I won’t argue with you in the street, but I’ll vote against you at the polling station.”
But congratulations to those business leaders, and those voters, who defied the intimidation and saved the United Kingdom.
I have no doubt at all that a Yes vote would have been an economic disaster for Scotland, and a major economic set-back for England (OK, for those pedants out there, yes, I mean “Rest of UK”, or “rUK” — but let’s accept England as shorthand). And of course the immediate question we eurosceptics will face is “So why don’t you reach the same conclusion about Brexit?” I’ve answered this in some detail on this blog. But in summary: Scotland andEngland have enough in common in terms of history, culture, language and economic interests that a legitimate shared democracy can exist, and can work. And Scotland benefits hugely in economic terms from the relationship. But in my view, Britain and our 27 EU partners do not share enough in terms of culture and language to make meaningful democracy work, and rather than benefiting, Britain suffers dire economic consequences as a result of EU membership, not least in terms of over-regulation, and energy policy.
A word about Alex Salmond. I have criticised him roundly, but I hope fairly, in this blog, on the grounds of policy. I have some sympathy with Allison Pearson’s use of Lewis Carroll’s phrase “slithy tove” to describe him. But outside politics, he’s not a bad guy. Regular readers will forgive me for repeating my Alex anecdote, but I first met him many years ago on a boat trip in Singapore harbour organised by the local Scottish diaspora. When I later asked for his help with a Burns Night speech I’d agreed to give, he very kindly sent me a script he’d used himself. Much appreciated.
And in politics, while I think he was profoundly wrong, you have to admire a man who devotes his whole life to a passionate cause, a man who believes in his country, and who comes so near to achieving his dream. Like the Cavaliers, Alex Salmond was wrong but romantic. And the dignified and timely manner of his resignation deserves our respect. No doubt we’ll see him in the House of Lords very soon.
While we’re extending bouquets to political opponents, let’s not forget Gordon Brown. I’ve often said that the only good thing he ever did was to keep Britain out of the €uro, with his cunningly-crafted “Five Tests”. But blow-me-down he’s now saved our country a second time. I have no doubt that his passionate and heartfelt intervention played a major role in the outcome.
Both Salmond and Brown have called for reconciliation after a divisive campaign, and that call also deserves our respect.
So where next? The leaders of the Old Parties (but not the House of Commons) made some extravagant promises in the last days of the campaign. Maybe they were sincere at the time, but now those promises are un-ravelling in the face of reality, and in the face of the back-benchers who will vote on any proposal. Everyone seems suddenly to recognise the danger of England being short-changed, and the need for constitutional change in rUK as well as Scotland.
Cameron insists that the change must be balanced, and that the timing must be the same for the whole country including Scotland. In principle he’s right, and he may be sincere. But he’s also looking at politics and party management. He fears his own backbenches won’t stay on-side without reforms for England (and his promise to retain the Barnett Formula is a real problem for him). And of course he’s keen on any solution that would cut the Labour numbers in the House of Commons by excluding Scottish Labour MPs from English votes.
But Cameron’s timetable is clearly unachievable, as many commentators point out. To be quick enough to satisfy the Scots, progress needs to be too fast to guarantee a properly thought-out solution for the UK.
Miliband, on the other hand, lacks any whiff of principle and is driven purely by immediate political tactics. He wants to deliver in Scotland very quickly, and claim credit in Scotland ahead of the 2015 General Election. But he also wants to delay as long as possible any threat in Westminster to his Scottish Labour lobby-fodder. As Kathleen Mavourneen put it so eloquently, “It may be for years, and it may be forever”.
Contrast, then, the UKIP position. Given the powers promised to Scotland, we call on Scottish Labour MPs voluntarily to desist from voting on English issues in Westminster. But we also call for a great Constitutional Conference to develop a plan that can command broad consent across the United Kingdom. The process can’t be open-ended in terms of time, but it must provide at least enough time to get to a viable and durable result. This is the clear and principled position which Nigel Farage has set out. Cameron’s suggestion of a small committee chaired by William Hague will not do.