Politics Writer Harry Thompson reports on the momentous Edinburgh Agreement.
Could the United Kingdom be about to undergo its biggest constitutional shift since the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922? Was the 15th October 2012 the start of a series of events
that will undo the Acts o
f Union 1707, arguably the most important pieces of legislation in the uniting of the United Kingdom?
If Alex Salmond has anything to say about it, the answer to both these questions is a resounding ‘yes’. The significance of the 15th October 2012 is that it was the day David Cameron flew to Edinburgh to sign an agreement on the proposed referendum on Scottish independence. The Scottish National Party have dubbed this the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, and it makes provisions for powers to be passed to the Scottish Parliament for the legislation on a single-question referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014.
There was controversy as to when the referendum would be held, with Salmond favouring a later referendum to give him time to win over the Scottish people. It seems Mr Salmond successfully negotiated this, but Mr Cameron won on the issue of whether there should be one or two questions in the referendum. Opinion polls currently show that the Scottish people are against independence but favour more powers being transferred to the Scottish Parliament, a so-called ‘Devolution-max’, or ‘Independence-Lite’ option. A two-question referendum could have given Mr Salmond’s party a consolation prize if full independence failed. On this issue Mr Cameron got his way, so Mr Salmond will have to fight for full independence or the status quo will continue.
He has a lot stacked against him. For one thing, the entire British political establishment will throw the kitchen sink at preserving the union. Ed Miliband has positioned Labour on the unionist side, possibly influenced by the fact that 41 Labour MPs have their constituencies in Scotland, As opposed to just one Co
. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative and Unionist party, promised to make a ‘very positive case’ for the union. For what it’s worth, Nick Clegg has also put himself on the side of the union (but then again, he once put himself on the side of students, and look what happened there).
The effects of Scottish independence would be felt further than just in Scotland. For example, it could herald a new age of Conservative government. If Scotland had been independent three years ago, the Conservatives would have won a majority in the House of Commons. There is also a growing view in Wales that Scottish independence would demand massive reforms to the way Wales is governed. The voice of the Celtic nations would be even smaller without Scotland fighting their cor
Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has suggested that the House of Lords should be replaced by an American-style Senate, with equal representation for all nations of the UK. The Welsh public, in the event of an independent Scotland, would also like to see more powers transferred from London to Wales. A recent opinion poll found that in the event of Scotland voting for independence, 10 per cent of Welsh people would favour independence for Wales, and a further 32 per cent would favour the transfer of more powers to the Welsh Government/Assembly. Only 30 per cent stated they would want to retain the existing settlement.
There is also the issue of whether Scotland could afford independence. A long-running argument between proponents and opponents of Scottish independence is whether or not Scotland curr
ently pays its way in the UK. Nationalists argue that Scotland, when oil revenues are taken into account, contributes much more than it costs, however Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, stated that 90 per cent of Scottish people are currently a net drain on the UK.
In reality, Scotland is close to breaking even in its finances, and is one of the wealthiest regions of the UK. Whether or not it spends more than it brings in is not a suitable measure of whether it could ‘survive’ as an independent country. After all, most major Western economies do not currently have a balanced budget.
Whether Scotland could or could not balance its budget is, in the long run, probably irrelevant to the question of an independent Scotland. Upon choosing independence, Scotland is gone. It will not, even if its secession is mishandled, want to suffer the indignity of returning to the UK it chose to leave. Scotland could therefore be a template for other nations to leave the UK, including Wales, whose people would become increasingly politically marginalised. On the other hand, Scotland looks likely to vote no to independence. This could take the issue off the agenda for a generation. However Scotland votes, it certainly se
ems like the Edinburgh Agreement is set to be extremely significant for the future of the entire United Kingdom. The shock will stretch far further than just Scotland.