Like some George Romero zombie film sequel, the Scottish question simply refuses to die. As I posited in September last year, the supposedly definitive referendum vote was likely to be anything but that. Rather, Scotland’s status in the Union was more likely to morph into a “Neverendum” – a huge, unsolved, existential distraction that would come to loom over everything else, much as the Quebec issue overshadowed Canadian politics a generation ago. I suspected at the time that this seemingly counterintuitive political outcome was the most likely; however, I must admit that I had no idea that the crisis would come to fruition so quickly.
For far from being cowed by losing the Scottish vote, the Yes campaign has never looked back. Always far more energetic than the staid – and more than a little dull – No outfit, the Yes campaign very quickly became a movement, not a one-off event. The Scottish National Party (SNP) in losing has caught electoral lightning in a bottle, and its membership numbers have skyrocketed to over 100,000. The SNP’s leader Nicola Sturgeon has been the Nick Clegg of this election cycle, making up in conviction for what she lacks in economic argument. If the polls were held today, the SNP would eviscerate Labour north of the border, taking an astonishing 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats. The zombie of Scottish separatism is still alive, indeed.
If things stay roughly as they are (and there is precious little sign that the SNP wave has crested) the Union is in for a rough ride regardless of whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband limps into Number 10. If Miliband wins, he will govern entirely at the pleasure of the SNP, who assuredly will extract their pound of flesh for at least tacitly supporting a very weak government. Sturgeon has made it clear that her price will be higher spending across the board, particularly regarding welfare. In other words, she will use Miliband as a cash machine.
But I’d imagine the SNP thinks that they also have Cameron just where they want him. If the Prime Minister is returned to power (bruised and battered as he will be) the fact that, north of the border, the Tories will have at best again only one MP will provide endless grist for the SNP mill in terms of the government’s legitimacy. And if 2017 rolls around and Cameron delivers on his promised referendum over the UK’s future status in Europe, look for the SNP to seize their moment.
For a vote to leave the EU would almost certainly lead to the SNP having another go at independence. As Scotland is far more Europhile than England, the argument would run that it should not be unwillingly carried away from Brussels’s embrace. In such circumstances, with the political wind at their backs, a SNP victory and an independent Scotland are the likely outcomes.
But as is true in every horror film, the SNP Neverendum zombie has a significant weakness, that of basic economic competence. SNP spending promises have never been able to pass the laugh test; since my college days at St Andrews, intellectually cornered nationalists have reflexively fallen back on the supposed endless abundance of North Sea oil as a catch-all for their fevered spending fantasies. With the price of oil having halved over the past year, this is simply no longer a remotely tenable policy position to hold, a fact the leaders of both major parties have to emphasise far more than they have up until now. The free ride for the SNP over economics must come to an abrupt end.
Predictably, Scotland’s pushing the devolution envelope has led to an English political and policy response. There is little doubt that the Tories hope to close the deal for another term in office with the plea not to leave Miliband and the country to the tender mercies of Sturgeon. In policy terms, the Prime Minister’s call this past week for English control over income tax is a realisation that devolution will ultimately only work if it is applied more uniformly across the UK. To fail to do so will create such patent discrepancies that poisonous cries of unfairness will undo the Union itself.
The Scottish nationalist zombie can still be slain, but only if facts – both political and economic – are allowed to combat unreason. Otherwise, as is true with all horror movie franchises, look for an endless number of Neverendum sequels.