George Kerevan: Sun now setting on the British state

Whether independence is settled by the referendum or not, Westminster’s power is fading

LET’S begin with a scenario that may upset my Nationalist friends. Suppose that in late 2014, the SNP loses the independence referendum and the constitutional status quo prevails. Game, set and match to the Unionists for the next 30 years, you might think.

Well, think again. The reality behind this latest constitutional rammy is the obsolescence of the British state itself, not the political charisma of Alex Salmond. That ramshackle state, designed to run a colonial empire not a modern European democracy, is going to implode anyway, sooner or later. I say implode because none of the big three Unionist parties have any plans to reform the UK constitution. They only react to pressure.

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But a lost independence referendum isn’t going to make the SNP disappear. The Nationalists would still have a majority at Holyrood. Meanwhile, on present form, David Cameron will be re-elected with English votes in 2015. In those circumstances, can you see Scottish Labour taking power at Holyrood in 2016? I can’t.

The popular backlash to a lost referendum and a second Cameron victory (involving the eclipse of the Lib Dems) would leave the SNP – not Labour - hegemonic at Holyrood for a generation. That virtually guarantees devo-max, to keep the Nats in their Edinburgh box while stiffing Labour at Westminster. After all, devo-max would be a good excuse to reduce the number of Scots MPs. So much for a lost referendum putting the constitutional question into cold storage. It could even see Alex Salmond remain as First Minister at Holyrood but with full fiscal powers.

Meanwhile, has anyone bothered to look at what’s happening in Northern Ireland during the present truce? Popular sentiment is coalescing around increased devolution (aka devo-max). The Nationalist community sees this as a temporary, halfway house during the economic crisis in the Republic. Pragmatic Unionists see devo-max as the best option given Westminster’s perennial lack of interest in the province. Next stop Northern Ireland becomes (effectively) self-governing then in a generation quietly federates with the Republic. Will Labour, the Lib Dems or even “mainland” Tories care? I think not: when they talk of defending the Union, it never means Northern Ireland.

What of England? How long before the English rebel against the conspiracy by the Westminster oligarchy to deny them a “fair, legal and decisive” referendum on EU membership? Has it not occurred to Cameron that by setting himself up as the supposed champion of a quick, clear testing of Scotland’s views on independence, he is exposing the Tory Party’s long hypocritical stance on Europe, always promising but never delivering – what was the phrase David? – an “never-endum” on the EU.

I mention the European litmus paper because it illustrates how the big Westminster parties have deliberately ignored English domestic political identity since 1945.

They have only gotten away with it because of the split on the right between middle class Ukip and the working class BNP. But win or lose, the Scottish independence referendum – exposed nightly on television – will ignite the fires of English nationalism.

Nothing wrong with that unless the big Westminster parties ignore the need for a separate English Parliament and allow resurgent English nationalism to be captured by the extreme right.

By the way, I note that in recent polls six out of 10 English people aged 16-44 say they are opposed to or agnostic about Scotland staying in the UK. I mention this because support for the United Kingdom is clearly influenced by age, with the generation closest to the Second World War the most committed. Thus demography is undermining the Union surely and steadily.

Why this constitutional myopia among the big three Unionist parties? Labour’s modern ideological roots are more to do with Stalinist central planning than Christian socialism, and you need a centralist state to issue orders. Now the Stalinist boat has foundered, Labour still needs its Celtic fringe MPs to have any hope of getting a majority at Westminster – it won only 28 per cent of the English vote in the 2010 General Election.

I see Labour is now talking about running its own “Save Devolution” campaign. Apart from being transparently irrelevant, can’t they see this will leave them wide open to being asked what plans Labour has to extend devolution? Back to devo-max.

The Lib Dems supposedly favour a UK federal solution but they have never done anything about it, largely because they have never agreed what federalism means. Even this platonic policy stance has been betrayed by Nick Clegg’s desire to sit at the Cabinet table.

In self-defence, expect them to rediscover their federalism – again, we are back to devo-max.

As for the Tories, there is a minimal excuse because constitutional conservatism is their political raison d’être. But the traditional Tory voting base has long since fragmented, white van man dabbling with the populist, English nationalist right and City man with the pro-globalist Blairites. At some stage, the Tories will have to grasp the need to divorce the Celtic fringes or become a minority party in perpetuity. In 2010, the Conservatives won an overall English majority, with 297 seats to Labour’s 191 and the Lib Dem’s 43. Sans the Celtic fringes, Cameron would have had an overall majority of 61 and no need to form a coalition.

My point is that the referendum is only another constitutional way station on the road to the inevitable break-up of the centralist, anti-democratic British state. In 2014, with the re-election of a Tory government imminent at Westminster, and after five years of austerity, my bet is the Scots will take a chance on self-government.

But whether in 2014 or later, what is fated to emerge from the chrysalis is the four UK nations recovering fiscal and domestic sovereignty then re-establishing some sort of loose, con-federal arrangement to manage their common internal market and common security needs. That process could be accelerated if the big three Unionist parties saw sense, instead of protecting their own selfish interests. Sadly, as this week has shown, that is unlikely.