The referendum may be over, and now the SNP conference, but the arguments about Scottish independence look as though they will not rest. The issue, the new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon made clear yesterday, is not settled for a generation, as unionists hoped.
For a party so recently defeated in what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve its central aim, the Scot Nats show little despondency.
With good reason: the SNP may get another opportunity for a decision on devolution before long. On the one hand, in what is shaping up to become a historic betrayal, the main UK parties seem unable or unwilling to come up with a plan for “devo max” home rule for Scotland along the lines promised by them in the last stages of the referendum campaign. The Conservatives can be rightly blamed for linking further powers for Holyrood with the so-called English Question, or Evel – English votes on English laws.
William Hague’s task is made all the more frustrating by the blatant politicking of the Labour Party, which still refuses to join the talks. Despite the angry resignation of its leader in Scotland, Labour in London still takes a proprietorial view of its operations in Scotland, and will pay dearly at the polls for that condescension.
So the moral case for reopening the independence question grows ever stronger, and the SNP is making the most of the Westminster parties’ failures. Come next May, there could be a solid phalanx of SNP MPs returned to Westminster, displacing many Labour and Liberal Democrat members. That will add to the weight of its case; it will also prove a fine practical advantage in the near certainty of a hung parliament. It will, in short, be able to hold any Westminster government to ransom until a second referendum is granted. This time the referendum would have to have devo max as a clear option, but if by then it has not been delivered, it would be difficult to predict which way a scorned Scottish electorate might jump. It would not take very much resentment to convert the 45 per cent support a few months ago into a clear majority for independence in, say, a year’s time. In which case David Cameron and Ed Miliband will carry a heavy guilt for the debacle; they would not, and should not, survive such a turn of events.
What is more, the Conservative promise of a referendum on the EU also provides the SNP with a case for a further vote. As Ms Sturgeon pointed out, it is “democratically indefensible” not to give Scotland another referendum if there was a vote to leave the EU in 2017. If England wants to get out of Europe but Scotland does not, then Scottish independence has to be the logical corollary.
Mr Miliband, for his part, will find it difficult. If he were to try a more nakedly social democratic approach, he would most likely lose yet more votes in England, where conservatism with both a lower-case and capital C is a more mainstream approach to politics than it is north of the border. Mr Miliband’s party, in other words, looks in trouble in Scotland and, for that reason, condemned to, at best, minority government next year. Alex Salmond, one of the most talented politicians either side of the border, has bequeathed his successor an enviable legacy.