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Sunday 21 September 2014


Cameron must now face up to constitutional nightmare

Panic-stricken party leaders in Westminster promised Scotland the earth to stay in United Kingdom, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

MORNING AFTER: The 'No' victory in the Scottish poll has brought its own political headaches for UK PM David Cameron. Photo credit: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
MORNING AFTER: The 'No' victory in the Scottish poll has brought its own political headaches for UK PM David Cameron. Photo credit: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

The United Kingdom has survived and Alex Salmond, the brilliant bruiser who dominated Scottish politics for more than two decades, has surrendered the leadership of his party and his nation. But despite an overwhelming sense of relief in Westminster, there's a dawning realisation that chaos is looming.

The Queen hopes that despite the "strong feelings and contrasting emotions among family, friends and neighbours", all parts of the country will now unite - having in common "an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all". She may be disappointed. The Scots parliament has been promised a swathe of extra powers by three panic-stricken national parties that are now squabbling about extent and timing, the Welsh want as much as they can get, Northern Irish unionists want less than they have and nationalists more, and the English are wounded by all the abuse that's been coming at them from people they subsidise and are having what by their standards is an outbreak of nationalism.

I was at a party dominated by journalists and politicians on Thursday night where we were invited to stick a labelled pin on a large board to indicate what we thought would be the final result. I'm proud to report that - being an optimist - I put mine in the mid-fifties on the 'No' side.

What I thought the polls were underestimating were the numbers of "shy" voters who preferred to hide their opinions. In 1992, too embarrassed to admit they would vote Conservative, they confounded the pollsters by sending John Major back to Downing Street. This time, it was intimidation that was keeping them quiet, for though Scots nationalists are outraged by the accusation, in truth the campaign saw a great deal of unpleasantness. 'No' signs and posters were daubed and destroyed in large numbers, canvassers were abused, and Ed Miliband, the inoffensive Labour leader, was hounded out of an Edinburgh shopping centre amid jostling and screams of "f**king liar", "murderer" and "traitor".

Nationalists decided the BBC was biased and took it out on their journalists in person and on social media, and a mob marched to the BBC Scottish HQ demanding the sacking of political editor Nick Robinson, who had asked Alex Salmond at a press conference the same kind of difficult questions he asks English politicians every day of the week. Indeed, Salmond banned journalists from two unionist newspapers from his Friday press conference.

Back in Westminster, having had a brief celebratory moment, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are now regretting that moment of madness when - in response to a solitary poll predicting a 'yes' vote - they gave ex-prime-minister Gordon Brown carte blanche to bribe voters with promises of "extensive new powers" to be delivered immediately. That was accompanied by what an angry Tory minister calls "a financial party bag" - a promise to retain the Barnett Formula, the existing method of carving-up public spending.

Devised in 1978 by Chief Secretary Joel Barnett to get the Labour government out of a hole, this formula apportions public spending in a way that is grotesquely unfair to the English: in 2011, public spending per head was £8,529 in England, £9,709 in Wales, £10,152 in Scotland and £10,876 in Northern Ireland.

Last week Barnett said his formula was "fundamentally flawed" and should have been scrapped years ago.

Here's the state of play. Salmond says the Scots will hold London's feet to the flames to ensure that all promises are kept. Wales says it would like what Scotland has. UKIP are now demanding a revision of the Barnett formula and a constitutional convention to put a Federal UK in place and have asked Scottish MPs to stop voting on English matters. Many livid Tory MPs and Boris Johnson agree. So Cameron says that while he will honour all promises to the Scots, that should go in tandem with a constitutional re-examination that is fair to England and has English votes for English laws. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats - who go in for unsuccessful constitutional meddling - want massive decentralisation. And Ed Miliband - who would be unable to govern without the votes of his Scots MPs (he has 40; Cameron has one) - accuses Cameron of seeking party advantage, stoutly resists having Scots MPs' voting rights curtailed and seeks a constitutional convention that would encompass everything, and thus take years to get anywhere.

True to form, Northern Ireland is neatly divided. Peter Robinson says there's no point in asking for more powers since Stormont has proved unable to handle those they've got, while Martin McGuinness's constructive contribution is to call for a border poll which would be guaranteed to initiate a toxic debate that would drag the Republic into the constitutional arguments of the United Kingdom.

But hey! As David Cameron used to tell us: "We're all in this together."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards