As 18 September gets closer, the debate between those who believe that Scotland should become independent and those who think that it should remain part of the UK becomes ever more intense. Contributions swell the coffers of both campaigns. The Pope comments on the issue. So does Barack Obama. But under all the noise and fuss there is only one question on which the voters should focus and that is how Scotland would look following a "yes" or a "no" vote.
Initially most of the focus was on the consequences of a "yes"; "yes" to independence, that is. Different pictures are drawn by the two sides. One is of Scotland standing proudly on its own two feet - a separate member of the EU, a participant in the pound sterling and an engine of innovation and growth. A sort of Belgium with bagpipes, if you like. The other is a little different: a bankrupt backwater excluded from all things civilised, its financial sector having literally gone south, and those who are left struggling to buy food with their McGroats, about as well dressed as Lear in the storm scene and rather more miserable. I expect you can work out which side paints which picture. Well, they would, wouldn't they?
Now what will happen if the Scots voters reject independence? Will things stay as before or will there be some new constitutional settlement? Perhaps there will be some form of "Devolution Max", or is that just a car? Actually it is quite difficult to see what there is left to devolve. The Scots already have control of their police, their education system, their courts, their criminal justice, their healthcare, their transport, their environment, their agriculture, their fisheries and their planning. That really only leaves foreign affairs, defence, social security and macroeconomics to be run from Westminster. Under the Scotland Act 2012 Edinburgh received the right to set a Scottish Income Tax rate as well.
So have all the goodies already been handed out. Come a "no" verdict, will a government anxious to make gestures to reinforce its victory find, like Old Mother Hubbard, that the cupboard is bare? Well, no, there is one thing that could still be done. That is to answer the West Lothian Question.
No you haven't suddenly dropped into a scene from "the Hobbit". There really is a West Lothian Question, so-called because it was raised by Tam Dalyell, the MP for West Lothian back in 1977. The question is whether Scottish members of Parliament should be able to vote on issues which only affect England. At present there is a lack of symmetry. Scottish domestic issues are debated by members of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh while English domestic issues are debated by the full House of Commons, including its Scottish members. It is an anomaly and an anomaly which leaves the Scottish Parliament inferior to the body which makes domestic decisions for England. There are two ways in which this could be remedied.
The first is to have an English regional parliament for English domestic issues so that the full Westminster Parliament only deals with questions affecting Britain as a whole - defence, foreign policy, finance etc. That would be nicely symmetric but horribly expensive. The public has no wish to pay for an extra level of MPs in England. The ones we have got are quite expensive enough.
The other approach is more radical. Suppose we abolished the Scottish Parliament as a separate entity and instead delegate Scottish domestic issues to those elected to the House of Commons as MPs for Scottish constituencies, meeting, if they wish, in Edinburgh. English domestic issues could then be delegated to a committee of English MPs and something similar could be done for Wales and Northern Ireland.
This would give the bodies dealing with domestic politics in each part of the UK equal weight. There would be no question of decision making being devolved from England to Scotland. The two countries would stand side by side as partners under the Crown, proud parts of the British State.
It is great in theory: a maximum of local accountability; a minimum of cost; no diminution in Britain's weight in the world, but it would require a sacrifice. The Scottish parliament would have to vote itself out of existence. Would they do that, I wonder? I am sure they would accept sacrifices for the cause of Scottish power but what if the sacrifice was of their own jobs? I am not so sure.
Lets go back to the possibility of a "yes" verdict, A newly independent Scotland decides to walk off into the sunset. What will really happen then? Some say that England and Scotland will work together on areas of mutual interest and that deals will be done. After all the politicians involved are all reasonable decent, pragmatic people. That is possible, I suppose, but I think that there is another perspective. Go and stand outside the divorce court and watch the people coming out. Reasonable, decent, pragmatic people, most of them, but see how they behave when they feel betrayed by someone they have relied on. It would be bold to think that the English public will tolerate any deals with Scotland if the Scots decide to walk away.
No one knows how Scotland will vote. Perhaps "yes" and, then again, perhaps "no". Either way the aftermath of the decision is likely to be far more interesting than the campaign which precedes it.Suggest a correction