By Tom Aitken in London
Well, well, well. So it’s all over. Scotland has voted, with a convincing majority, to stay in the United Kingdon.
Alex Salmond has resigned as Scottish First Minister.
British PM David Cameron has promised, by way of reward for loyalty, a number of constitutional changes in Scotland’s position which, he supposes, will soothe the fevered brows of those who voted for independence. These would give Scotland much greater control over its own budget, and would, if Salmond’s arguments were sound, make them more prosperous as well as more independent.
Sounds good. What can possibly go wrong?
Sadly, the answer is ‘Quite a lot’.
Salmond’s claims that an independent Scotland would be financially better off continue to be seen as wildly over-optimistic by those who voted against separation.
If those who were carried away by Salmond’s skillful and, it has to be said, rather attractive smiling optimism, would stop singing patriotic ditties and do some sums they would, we might think, have to be ready to tighten their belts.
Scottish oil won’t last for ever. (And, meanwhile, they would have to replace a great deal of equipment removed by foreign investors.) Similarly, the withdrawal of naval bases from an independent Scotland would result in large-scale job and financial losses, which would have to be paid for by Scottish taxpayers. And could Scotland exist without modern defences?
Furthermore, the population of Scotland in 2011 was 5.295 million. A substantial number of them draw state benefits from, wait for it, the United Kingdom.
The big TV debate
Salmond was said to have been the overall winner when he debated these issues on television with Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together Campaign, and, significantly, a former British Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the poll, the man facing difficulties which he has dug himself into is David Cameron. He in his own way showed as little grasp of hard practicalities as did Salmond.
When the polls showed that the separatists were on course to win, Cameron (possibly in a panic) promised a number of immediate financial concessions if the Better Together campaign were to win.
He promised devolution of various powers to a new Scotland, which governed itself and looked after its own finances. On the face of it, they seemed reasonable. The concessions would take pretty well immediate effect.
But, like the proverbial week, ‘immediate’ can be a long time in politics.
The problem is that if these devolutions took place immediately, a wildly anomalous situation would arise.
On the one hand, Scotland would not have Westminster interfering in its domestic affairs. Whoopee!
But (and to Cameron and even more his followers, this ‘but’ is almost as big as the ‘Butt of Lewis,’ the site of a lighthouse on the Outer Hebrides) the Westminster Parliament would still include amongst its members six Scottish Labour members, all of them empowered to vote on English issues and all of them very unlikely to support the Conservatives.
No right-thinking (ho ho!) English Conservative is likely to put up with that. Furthermore, the constitutional requirement to remove those Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster, taken together with the setting up of a new United Kingdom Parliament (in England, but not, preferably, in London) will take years rather than months.
One of the Scottish complaints about the present set up is that English, Welsh and Irish MPs are voting on Scottish issues. The English would feel the same about a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh or Glasgow voting on their private affairs under new constitutional arrangements.
The Labour Party, naturally, also has strong views on this issue. The only way Labour can ever hope to achieve a majority at Westminster is to have those six Scottish Labour MPs safely on board.
As Alexander McCall Smith (a Scottish doctor, and therefore wise beyond measure) shows Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency thinking, ‘It is not enough just to identify a problem; there are plenty of people who were very skilled at pointing out what was wrong with the world, but they were not always so adept at working out how these things could be righted.’