Queen’s fears raise stakes in the Scottish game

Manoeuvres over the future of Scotland grow ever more complicated. Who leaked the story to the Sunday Times that the Queen is worrIed about the breakup of her Kingdom? (I’m referring to Scotland of course). The Prime Minister’s weekly audience is supposed to as secret as the confessional and you can bet it wasn’t her that leaked. While such leaks are almost as rare as hens’ teeth, I remember that the last one, in 1986, turned out to be completely gen. The Queen’s press secretary the late Michael Shea off his own bat leaked that the Queen was unhappy about the threatened breakup of the Commonwealth over Mrs Thatcher’s  opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

Any suggestion that the Queen is taking an anti-Salmond line could damage the First Minister’s soothing strategy of supporting the retention of the monarchy in an independent Scotland.

Alex Salmond is not so respectful of the new UK Supreme Court however.  Entirely apart from the devolution settlement, the UK Supreme Court  at Westminster  hears appeals in Scottish civil though not criminal cases,  but may hear human rights appeals that affect criminal cases. Salmond opposes this and appears to want to end appeals to the Court altogether. The Court is also an adjudicator in constitutional disputes between the UK and Holyrood (and the other two devolved) governments.   As the Herald reports:

The SNP has long argued for a self-contained legal system as part of an independent Scotland, and resents the Supreme Court’s as-yet untested power to strike down Acts of the Scottish Parliament, while Westminster Acts are off-limits.

But on the big issue of independence and the economy one of Salmond’s own economic advisers, John Kay of the LSE comes down comprehensively against separation, in a special article for Scotland on Sunday.

The reality is that Scotland would gain little by full independence. In the modern world, economic sovereignty for small nations is inescapably limited, and political sovereignty is largely symbolic.

There is very little possible autonomy for Scotland which is not potentially available to it as part of the United Kingdom…

An independent Scottish government would also have to be careful about raising income tax. ” People would just move south,” he says. And while Scotland would lay claim to the substantial reserves of oil still in the North Sea, Kay says it is not clear “that Scotland would be better off with oil, not subsidies”.

Kay says another question should be added to any independence referendum ballot paper.

The next step is likely to involve adding a compromise option to the ballot paper: greater fiscal autonomy, short of independence.

That is the likely outcome; faced with three options, many people choose the middle one. It is also the desirable one. Scotland can get many of the advantages claimed for independence if it negotiates for more autonomy, while still staying part of the Union.

But why leave the question and the political initiative to an SNP referendum in three or four years’ time, when taxation powers lie at the heart of the Scotland Bill before the Commons right now?  Failure to resolve the issue to Scotland’s satisfaction before the mooted referendum  gifts Salmond a major grievance and  could boost the case  for independence.  Might he therefore reject any offer from Westminster however much enhanced to create such a scenario?  In the game of political chess over the future of Scotland, the Westminster  government needs to concentrate as hard as Alex Salmond. So far there’s no sign they’ve begun to do so.

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