What will become of the May 2015 UK Parliament if Scotland votes “Yes” on independence?

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Every so often – but not very often – a major theme enters political  debate which nobody noticed much at first  but when attention is drawn to it, it becomes completely obvious.  This topic is one such I’m posting here on how a referendum vote in favour of Scottish independence in September 2014 could greatly complicate the options for transitional UK government up to the general election in May 2015 and even more, the composition and form of the UK government thereafter.  The constitutional and political implications could be as fundamental for the reduced UK as for the departing Scotland.  The scenario is laid out in the Ballots and Bullets blog of the School of Politics and International Relations in Nottingham University. The authors are the geographers,  Prof Ron Johnson of Bristol University, a leading authority on constituency boundaries and consultant on the proposed boundary changes in 2010;  the electoral geographer Prof Charles Pattie and David Rossiter, both of Sheffield University.

Ron was an expert commentator on the Conservatives’ plan – aborted by the Lib Dems – to reduce the number of parliamentary seats by 50 and redraw boundaries to create constituencies of roughly equal size. The same team  warned that this policy would undermine” the underpinning of British representative democracy - that members of Parliament represent places with clear identities.”

 

“The timetable for a Scottish Independence referendum in October 2014 and, if that is successful, implementation of the decision in March 2016 overlaps that of the fixed cycle for elections to the UK Parliament, for which the next general election will be held in May 2015. Governing the UK during that inter-regnum (when there will still be 59 Scottish MPs) will be difficult, as may forming a government after the May election, plus sustaining it after those 59 MPs depart in March 2016. And then there is the House of Lords…

Although opinion polls currently indicate declining support for Scottish independence, 18 months is a very long time in politics. Groups of civil servants are undoubtedly now working in both London and Edinburgh on the myriad issues that would have to be resolved should there be a positive vote in October 2014. Does their agenda include the following scenario?

 

  • Scotland votes clearly for independence, to occur – according to the SNP’s current timetable – in March 2016;

 

  • In May 2015 there is a UK general election (when Scotland is still a member of the UK). Labour wins 330 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, a majority of 10 over all other parties. Its complement of 330 includes 40 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Labour forms a government; and then

 

  • In March 2016, the break-up of the United Kingdom occurs. The House of Commons is now reduced to 591 MPs, with Labour having 290; it no longer has a majority.

 

What would happen then?

Labour may go on governing – it would be only just short of a majority and, given that Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats (and also that there are five of them then, as now), it could well get its business through. Alternatively it may reach an accommodation with one or more other parties – maybe even a LabLib pact (a full coalition is less likely).

If at some stage Labour loses a vote of confidence, however, then the procedures set out in the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, 2011, come into play: there may be a premature general election. And if that happens before late 2018, such an election would be held in the current 591 English, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies – created using electoral data for 2000; following the Lords’ amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, 2013, the Boundary Commissions do not have to deliver recommendations for 548 new constituencies in those countries until October 2018.

Having voted for independence, however, the Scottish electorate may decide to send many more SNP MPs to Westminster in May 2015 – why vote for the parties of the now-rejected Union? Indeed, why vote at all?  It is doubtful that Labour could win a majority in England and Wales alone so David Cameron’s hopes of a Conservative majority over Labour and the LibDems in 2015 would be enhanced if very few Scottish MPs were elected to represent those two parties.

 

In addition, 11 of the Liberal Democrats’ current 57 MPs represent Scottish constituencies, so much will depend on how the soon-to-be-independent Scots vote in the 53 seats that currently return a non-SNP MP and how the MPs who replace them vote in the Commons during that inter-regnum (would they join with Labour and the Liberal Democrats in voting against the Queen’s Speech, for example, or just abstain?)

That might be a bit – perhaps very – messy, at a time when continuity and stability will still be preached as necessary conditions for economic recovery. As interesting – and potentially very controversial – will be what happens between October 2014 and March 2016, and especially between May 2015 and the latter date, whichever party (or parties) are in power. The government is already concerned about, and seeking a resolution to, the West Lothian problem: it will be magnified many-fold during that inter-regnum.

Once Scotland has voted for independence, what role should Scottish MPs play at Westminster during the following 18 months? Some might argue they should no longer participate – certainly not in its votes, though, of course, they should continue to represent their constituents’ interests that are covered by the transitional UK government (just as Sinn Féin MPs do now). But Scotland will still be a member of the UK and decisions will be taken during those 18 months on which they should have a say: what if the UK government recommends that the country goes to war somewhere in December 2014?

Would Scottish MPs agree to vote on a restricted range of issues only? Could agreement be reached on what those issues are? If not, would the government legislate to limit Scottish MPs’ roles in the House of Commons – perhaps with opposition support (the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all opposed to the break-up of the Union)?

And what of the House of Lords. What would happen to the Scottish hereditary peers? The 1800 Act of Union allowed the Irish peers to elect 28 members to the Lords. None were elected post-independence, but also none were required to relinquish their seats, with some remaining members of a ‘foreign’ Parliament until their death, which for one Irish peer was as late as 1961. A similar situation occurred after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, when the Scottish peers were entitled to elect 16 of their number to sit in the Lords. From then on all new peers were appointed to the Peerage of Great Britain (as were a few peers created after 1922 who took Irish titles). All Scottish peers were entitled to sit in the Lords under the Peerage Act, 1963, and became part of the electorate after most of the hereditaries lost their seats under the House of Lords Act, 1999. There is thus no Scottish hereditary peerage, merely a UK Peerage, and it would presumably be up to those who, post-independence, considered themselves Scottish rather than UK citizens to withdraw from the hereditary electorate.

Of course, all peers are now appointed for life, and many of those currently occupying the House of Lords benches have some Scottish links. But could a separate ‘Scottish Life Peerage’ be defined to identify them? On what criteria – residence (first, or second)? Some may self-identify and withdraw but others, like their Irish predecessors, may decide to stay. How could they be removed? Could a generic Act be conceived, or would there have to be a series of ad hoc pieces of legislation? And when it was all settled – it might take some time – would the Prime Minister then replace them with a new tranche to maintain the currently-desired party balance?

Uncertainties abound, but governing the UK may be very difficult during the transition period, even if there is good will on all sides.

 Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, Charles Pattie is Professor of Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, and David Rossiter.

 

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  • MrPMartin

    It’s a dogs breakfast and one that was obvious to me a long time ago. Imagine an even bigger mess if Scotland breaks away and joins the EU & the rump UK leaves the EU and possibly ends the freedom of movement of workers/residents from Eire & Scotland

    England is quite right wing and its not inconceivable that future governments in a rump UK would be coalitions between Tories & UKIP so an isolationist policy may very well be on the cards

    So this is what we have come to? Scotland is not a nation but a region. I never bought the argument that Scotland never votes for the UK government being a reason to break away. I’m sure there are many constituencies in England who remained labour during Thatchers time so should they declare independence?

    Devolution is a nonsense and as soon as all this parochial expensive set of toy town assemblies are abolished along with their overblown politicians who are like schoolboys with tinpots on their heads pretending to be generals.

    A unitary UK with central government in control is what is needed. No need for local councils. Why do we need them? Can’t we have the Dept of Environment at Westminster organise and decide when bin collections and street cleaning take place.

    No region should be let break away otherwise we end up in a mess and an even bigger one as I describe above. Salmond while being clever is only one man. The SNP is his personal vehicle in the same way the SDLP was Humes and the DUP was Paisleys

    Lets wait til Salmond retires and we will soon see that there is no one to replace him and the SNP will sink just like the SDLP did. He will be succeeded by a succession of nobodies who will last a year in their posts each.

  • grandimarkey

    So this is what we have come to? Scotland is not a nation but a region.

    Incorrect.

    No region should be let break away otherwise we end up in a mess and an even bigger one as I describe above.

    YEAH! FUCK DEMOCRACY!

    Lets wait til Salmond retires and we will soon see that there is no one to replace him and the SNP will sink just like the SDLP did.

    Perhaps he’ll retire after the vote is carried? I mean, the slickest political machine in the UK only has 18 months to swing the vote by 5%. Them’s good odds :-)

    On a serious note, while I don’t place too much faith in opinion polls, if this trend is to continue I would be a very worried Unionist.

  • Fearglic

    The possible restriction of movement between Ireland (North and South) and the Three Nations of Wales Scotland and England will only be an issue if England and Wales and the 6 Counties pull out of Europe. Cameron has already promised a vote for this if reelected in 2015 ( a cynical vote collecting ploy if you ask me). The 6 counties would need to build an Israeli like siege wall to impose these restrictions. I can only envisage the increased desire by all in the 6 Counties for greater Union/cooperation/ integration (call it want you like) with the other 26 Counties of this Ireland. Scottish Independence is an exciting time for all Irish and British Nationalists!!

  • MrPMartin

    what if every county in the country wanted “independence” ? Shouldthey get it just because they want it? We would end up in a Passport to Pimlico world of sheer nonsense

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    There is an alternative scenario (even accepting the unlikely event of a Scottish go-it-alone — on which, see more below).

    1. Long before 2015 we have local elections of 2013 (Tories defending all those ill-gotten gains of 2009). Then the Grand Slam of May 2014 (London Boroughs, metropolitan councils, unitary authorities, and … ta-rah! … the European Parliament). On present standings, we can happily expect the Tories to be severely maimed, run a poor second — or even third behind UKIP. Cameron is stinking fish, even among his own.

    2. Labour gains a majority in May 2015, and governs. It won’t be a landslide — the whole thing is too febrile for that. The Scots aren’t so daft as to allow Tories and LibDems to leave faecal deposits on the doorstep for any interval — the only logical SNP tactic would be be abstain: no candidates, no votes, no validation.

    2. March 2016, the Miliband administration accepts it has no continuing mandate, and calls a fresh General Election. The main theme is “unfinished business” and “the last lot really mucked it up” (Cf: Harold Wilson and 1966).

    3. The pined-for Tory scenario of an English parliament, in which they have unopposed bragging rights, looks severely dented.

    4. There is an upsurge of regionalism across the now-disunited UK.

    5. Meanwhile, the Scottish Islands vote to dis-affiliate from Edinburgh.

    Oh, and Gerry Hassan’s speculative piece in The Scotsman is definitely worth a visit. Note particularly where he places the onus:

    …we have the problem with what we could call “Andrew Neil Scotland” – the right-wing Scots diaspora view that inhabits influential parts of Westminster.

    This presents a caricature of Scotland as a land of immaturity and wrong-headness, a world of “spend, spend, spend”, welfare dependency, and a cossetted, bloated public sector.

    This grotesque account of modern day Scotland by Scots in places of influence in the Westminster world has two damaging consequences. It has an effect on part of the debate north of the Border, reinforcing doubts and negativity in those places where such feelings exist; and crucially, it strengthens an English sense of incomprehension and lack of interest in the real debate, dismissing us with a belief we are all “subsidy Jocks”.

    That right-wing account is slowly eroding the shared social compact that underpinned the United Kingdom.

    The growing grip of such cut-faster-and-deeper thinking in Westminster in centre-right thinking, means that whether opinion here is pro, anti or agnostic on independence, we have to recognise what unites us: rejecting pseudo-market vandalism and the rigged capitalism of the City. And have some degree of measured debate about the realm of what self-government and independence can do to address the challenges and choices of Scottish society.

    Fetch out the Glenmorangie! I’ll drink to that!

  • Dewi

    Malcolm – you are on the wrong side friend.

  • Barnshee

    “4. There is an upsurge of regionalism across the now-disunited UK.”

    The SE crys hallelujah –The “regions” get to run their own affairs and sink in cloud of infighting and factional dispute as they cannot raise the funds necessary to maintain standards

    Continued prosperity in the SE will allow in natives from the “regions” as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (a bit like the present only more so) Property prices in the SE, continue to escalate whilst prices are static or decline in the “regions” This exacerbates and sets the divide in concrete.

    England runs out of patience A de facto English parliament arises which sloughs off the “regions” from subvention and allows the “regions” to adjust to realistic wage levels/property values etc. —Free at last from those nasty Brits

    PS
    - For a glimpse of what N Ireland will look like drive from (say) London/Derry to Dungloe

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Dewi @t 12:18 am:

    Long time, no hear! Sadly so.

    For the record, pro-independence opinion seems stuck around 32% — with a widening gender gap. I’d doubt that the “Better-off Together” lot are helped by any Cameroon utterance, though.

    Meanwhile, today, John Swinney is off to Lerwick to try and keep the the Convention of Highlands and Islands on-side. Since a fair amount of the SNP wind-and-water rhetoric is based on energy from the north and west, we might wish Swinney well.

  • Greenflag

    Scottish independence or for that matter Irish or Welsh or English is somewhat overrated in today’s globalised world economy .There is not a lot these countries can do by themselves or even together to ‘combat’ the plutocratic hegemony which has been built up over the past couple of decades by the ‘con men ‘ on the right of the political spectrum and by the seemingly powerless and idealess advocates of the left .

    Scots may or may not feel good about ‘independence’ ditto for the Welsh .We Irish took that road almost a century ago and on balance from at least some perspectives -even from an English perspective it was probably then a good move albeit in hindsight . How many in the Republic today would countenance ‘leaving ‘ the bigger European union ?

    Fact is our ‘politicians ‘ are virtually powerless in the face of the power held by ‘international private banking ‘ but then so too is the UK Government -the USA Government and even the Germans .The banks that were too big to fail back in 2007/2008 are even bigger now than ever and yet where are the politicians anywhere in the West demanding that these enormous institutions be broken up and forced to exit casino gambling with depositors monies ? Nowhere . They don’t exist -not if they want to re-elected .Our politicians no longer represent us even though we ‘vote ‘for them .

    What has happened in Cyprus is almost exactly what happened in Iceland .And what happened in Cyprus can happen in the UK or Italy or France or Belgium .Ironically what are called the ‘socialist ‘ or nanny welfare states so called by American neo con right wing Fox News Bill O’Reilly are the only states that are enjoying economic growth and much less financial stress that the UK /Ireland i.e Germany , Sweden , Netherlands , Finland , Denmark etc .

    The neo con right wing have no answer to the current malaise in Western economies .Trickle down economics has resulted in trickle up poverty for millions in the American and European economies .Meanwhile the top 1% are taking ever more of the wealth of nations -up from 25% a decade ago to 50% now and the middle and working classes are being squeezed of their hopes and ambitions for the next generation .

    In this context whether Scotland becomes independent or not hardly matters unless of course Scotland attempts to follow the Scandinavian /German model of long term sustainable ‘capitalism ‘ rather than the current Anglo American short term capitalism or as former American VP Al Gore calls it – quarterly financial report democracy :(