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.
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