by Philip Reid, Associate Director at Political Intelligence
Two weeks ago, both the Westminster village and ‘Fleet Street’ were continuing to comprehend the detail of the various Treasury documents, following the Chancellor’s Budget Speech on 19th March.
Naturally, it was the big set piece event that grabbed all the political headlines for the entire week. However twenty four hours earlier, a small political milestone passed under the radar, relatively unnoticed, which could lead to the biggest constitutional change in the United Kingdom for centuries. For those that blinked, I am referring to the six month mark until the Scottish Independence Referendum and whilst it passed most people by, 18th September will surely be a different story.
The independence debate has been an interesting one to follow in recent months. Every week, another captain of industry advocates their opinion on the impact a “yes” vote would have on their company. Whilst there have been some notable champions in favour of independence (including Willie Walsh of British Airways, primarily due to Air Passenger Duty), business has generally come out on the side of the Union. There is clear concern particularly around Alex Salmond’s economic proposals. When put under the spotlight, business fears the proposals lack the credibility that breeds the necessary confidence for future investment and growth. Concerns around the SNP’s overreliance on dwindling North Sea oil reserves, its faith in being able to use Sterling (despite opposition from Westminster) as well as uncertainty around Scotland’s membership of the EU are all significant issues that make businesses extremely twitchy about breaking the 300 year old tie with the rest of the UK.
Sleepwalking to defeat?
At the same time, the talk of Unionist apathy to the whole issue is regularly trailed within the newspapers. The Scottish Minister Alistair Carmichael made this perfectly clear in an interview with the Observer last weekend. He stated that “Everybody needs to know that this is a serious contest and one which it is not impossible that the nationalists could win”. It is hard to completely tell whether this is simply scaremongering from the Unionist camp or genuine fear that their biggest nightmare could actually become reality.
On reflection, it appears that there is genuine cause for alarm if you are in the camp which wishes to retain the Saltire within the Union Jack. The apathy, particularly amongst the English population is clear to see. This is in part due to the effects of devolution under Tony Blair which has created a greater sense of English identity as policy differences have widened on various issues north of the border (health care, student fees etc). The West Lothian question has continued to frustrate English MPs especially from the Conservative benches, which allows Scottish MPs to vote on “English matters”. There is also an argument to suggest that British identity has diminished as our imperial heritage further fades into the history books.
What is clear is that the rest of the UK or “UK lite” does not appear to fully understand the potential impact, should the Scots decide to set sail on their own. The political, economic and social ramifications could be enormous. How will “UK lite” work within the UN, NATO, the EU and other international institutions? Will it retain the same positions as before (such as a place on the UN Security Council) that has provided the UK with a strong international position in the post-war world? At a national level, whilst most Conservatives are instinctively driven to preserve the Union, independence offers the Tories a real opportunity to change the political landscape. Out of the fifty nine Scottish seats in Westminster, forty one are held by Labour, with the Liberal Democrats returning eleven and the SNP six. The Tories only have a single MP in Scotland. A House of Commons without these parliamentarians would potentially see the House looking distinctly blue in the future. Indeed, senior Conservatives are already advocating a rule change on whether a Scotland that voted for independence could return Westminster MPs at the next election. Whilst it is clearly debateable as to whether these changes would in fact be a good or bad thing for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the long term, it is clear that many people have not considered what these potential changes may have on their own lives.
Momentum – is it shifting?
Indeed the general apathy could well play into the hands of the SNP. There appears to be an assumption amongst politicians south of the border that the “Better Together” campaign will win on a three-to-two margin based on the current party loyalties in Scotland and their views on independence. However evidence suggests that the polls are tightening. The most recent research by YouGov suggests that whilst the no vote has remained steady at 52%, undecided voters appear to be moving towards the yes campaign – taking out the ‘don’t knows’ has seen the no vote shift since December from 61%-39% to 58%-42%. Interestingly as well, the shift in the vote has been amongst women (traditionally who have been less in favour of independence), reacting to Alex Salmond’s policy around childcare support.
Whether this momentum can be maintained is yet to be seen. It could well be a brief divergence away from the traditional divide amongst the Scottish voters. However, it highlights the dangerous ground that Alistair Darling and his team are on. They are hampered by the messaging in their arguments, which can come across as both negative and defensive. They are also equally troubled by any involvement from the Westminster parties as their input can easily be construed (even by pro-Union Scots) as England telling Scotland what to do, always a recipe for disaster! Any messaging that can be construed as even remotely patronising (including some of the April Fools jokes undertaken by the London press this week) has the potential to change the opinion of the swaying voter and even damage the ‘no’ vote.
If you add all of this to the fact that they are up against one of the shrewdest politicians of our generation, then a ‘no’ vote is by no means a dead cert. The SNP offer something different and new, which tugs at the Scottish heartstrings and is naturally appealing to a people who have felt disenfranchised from a London-centric political system for many decades.
It will be fascinating to see how the next six months play out, with undoubted twists and turns for both sides along the way. What is abundantly clear is that more businesses and individuals across the United Kingdom need to take stock of this important landmark in British history. It will undoubtedly affect us all in some way, shape or form and so it is important that we all understand both the threats and opportunities should the Flower of Scotland become “that nation again”.
If you are interested in discussing the issues that your business may have in the run up to the Scottish Independence vote, please contact the Political Intelligence team.