Westminster Outlook: A wafer-thin ‘no’ vote and Scotland will be condemned to living in limbo


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A “yes” vote in the independence referendum would be a terrible outcome for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Make no mistake, the rest of the UK would fall into recession, reopening the deep, freshly stitched wounds of the financial crisis, while business for far too long believed the line in Westminster that a vote to leave the Union was borderline impossible.

Uncertainty in any walk of life, but most infamously the City, stokes fear and causes carnage. Losing one third of Britain’s landmass and access to most North Sea oil and gas, and guaranteeing the Union’s debt no matter what, will see unemployment rise and lending tighten. Markets will collapse.

Which is one of the reasons why the BP chief executive Bob Dudley and Standard Life boss David Nish have turned into the business wing of Better Together this week and warned Scots of the financial perils of going it alone.

But the worst result for Scotland is the one that I believe will occur next week: a wafer-thin “no” vote.

Plenty of Labour MPs with Scottish seats have long said a “win is a win”, and I’m sure they meant that when they thought they would get about 60 per cent of the vote. The reality is that they wanted what in electoral terms amounts to a decisive, if not thumping, victory.

Whatever you make of the polls of the past week, which have veered between YouGov’s slender win for independence and Survation’s six-point lead for Better Together, the Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins is surely right that secessionists are “in touching distance of success”.

If his dream remains tantalisingly just out of reach on 18 September, don’t expect nationalists to accept the vote. Having come so far from a 22-point trouncing at the start of last month, they will say they won the argument. What’s more, it could be that English residents made the difference and the “proper” Scots were in favour of ending three centuries of shared history. Worse still, there are rumours that many of those wanting to put their cross against the “yes” box are not registered to vote, which could lead to rancour at the polling booths.

In a close vote, nationalists simply will not take “no” for an answer and I don’t believe that many of the rest of us would either if we shared their views.

As there was in Quebec after the province’s 1980 poll over leaving Canada – by comparison with today, a pretty clear 60-40 no vote – there will be a push for another and soon. Quebec went back to the polls for an even tighter vote in 1995.

The Scotland Secretary Alistair Carmichael recently told me that another generation of uncertainty could cause the financial services sector to “take a look” at moving south of the border. In other words, the likes of Royal Bank of Scotland could still take flight even in the event of a narrow defeat for the nationalists unless both sides can find a way to work closely on further devolution.

But evidence that they could do so has been scant. In that context, a win is not a win and Scotland would lose some of its most precious businesses.

Union ‘fat cats’? The critics are protesting too much  To attack Frances O’Grady as hypocritical for bemoaning the pay gap in Britain between top and bottom while on a £106,000 salary is farcical.

Representing 6.2 million union members as general secretary of the TUC, Ms O’Grady is most certainly at the top of her profession.

If this daughter of a British Leyland shop steward was running even a FTSE 250 company, she would be on an awful lot more – and that alternative leadership role would have neither the scope for personal abuse nor wider societal responsibility.

At the TUC annual congress this week, Ms O’Grady asked whether Britain should settle for becoming “a Downton Abbey style society, in which the living standards of the vast majority are sacrificed to protect the high living of the well to do”.

The Tory MP David Morris said he “won’t be taking any lectures” from Ms O’Grady and other union leaders on six-figure salaries. John O’Connell, the director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, called them “union fat cats”.

Normally I would side with a mate of Rick Astley – Mr Morris was a backing musician to the pop icon when he was on Top of the Pops three decades ago – but they’re both wrong.

Assuming that Ms O’Grady works only 35 hours a week, which is highly unlikely, she is on barely nine times more than the minimum wage of workers aged over 21 – workers she represents. That’s not a massive gap in either relative or absolute terms, particularly when what she’s pointing out is the difference between multi-millionaire executives and workers on low to average salaries.

I do accept that Ms O’Grady was wrong to criticise the recommended 10 per cent increase for MPs from £67,000.

It’s a good salary, but when you’ve seen what they have to deal with, what it costs them financially, personally and professionally, then you know that they too should be on a good £100,000. Certainly, Parliament should not be blocked off to all but those who can afford politics.

But Ms O’Grady is no fat cat. For the job she does, the money is far from egregious and MPs should not use her salary to distract from her compelling argument that this is an increasingly economically divided country.