Will the Scottish independence debate ripple south of the border and across the Irish Sea?

At last, it’s game on for the Independence Debate.  London based comment has decided that on balance David Cameron  had the best of Round One, or  the “Edinburgh Declaration, “  as  Alex Salmond  dubbed it with typical initiative-grabbing grandiosity. Salmond of course hasn’t conceded any such thing.

Leaving the wording of The Question aside for later debate, some of the wider ripple effects have been noted.

 Tory opposition means 17 year olds will be able to vote in the Scottish referendum, which is likely to be held in the autumn of 2014, but will be barred from doing so in the general election the following May if they have not turned 18 by then.

So the referendum has already widened the devo gap to include the franchise  – always assuming of course that the rest of the UK can hold the line against it . On the other hand it may prove in the end that Scottish pressure will result in a lower franchise throughout the UK . Devolution was always designed to be a two way street, allowing the devolved territories to be different, but equally allowing them to set the pace occasionally on equal terms with England.

The Independent’s Steve Richards laments the existence of referendums altogether on the grounds they solve nothing, an arguable Londoncentric  point of view but one which whistles in the dark against the trend.  Europe rather than the misty northern province somewhere beyond the M6 is at the forefront of his mind. But at least he is one of very few London commentators to have even spotted political consequences in the likely sequence of a Scottish independence referendum followed by an in-out referendum on Europe.

Cameron is of course right not to grant Salmond equal status in debate, not only as it is beneath his dignity as the UK Prime Minister but for the opposite reason, that he is the leader of a party which barely survives in Scotland.

Both leaders touched on the implications of the Scottish referendum for politics in the rest of the UK.   David Cameron’s “passionate”  commitment to the Union carries an edge that will be noted in Northern Ireland. There may be no selfish interest in maintaining the Uniion but there may be an idealistic one, is the implication.

 English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters will not be consulted about Scottish independence, but Mr Cameron said he would be fighting hard to persuade them too that the Union should continue.

Are we included in that little sequence because it would be too glaring to leave us out – as many do who do not emotionally identify with our Union?  There’s  no doubt that today’s Conservatives pay warmer lip service to the Union without wishing to disturb the parameters of the  spirit and letter  of the GFA, whether or not it means anything at all in terms of practical politics or even genuine sentiment.

Similarly Alex Salmond’s declaration “We’re in the business of building a new relationship between the people of these islands.” may also be no more than  another piece of rhetoric. But his vision of soft independence and a social union with the rest of Britain will create echoes  in our identity debates.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London