Independence: If Scotland votes No, what next?

This is the latest in a weekly series of essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.

First Minister Alex Salmond must play a lead role in shaping Scotlands future and healing divisions. Picture: Gareth Easton

What happens when the voting is over? After the ballots are counted and the result proclaimed, what next? This question is relatively easy if there is a Yes vote. There would be so much work to do that everyone and anyone in Scotland who wanted to play a role in building the new state would be busier than ever.

The Scottish Government knows that it could not do it alone, and the SNP leadership has rightly signalled that this would be a project for all of Scotland.

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Hard as it may be to imagine now, within a few days of the result it would not much matter which side you had been on in the campaign. The only people that would be marginalised in the new Scotland would be cyber-nutters wanting to keep open the divisions of the campaign trail.

The polls persistently indicate, however, that there is not going to be a Yes vote. If the polls are right, what happens after a No vote is a rather important question.

Independence will have been rejected, but its principal proponent – the SNP – will still be in power. Prime Minister David Cameron will be facing a general election only eight months after the referendum, but the First Minister will be secure in office until at least May 2016, unless he resigns or is toppled from within his own ranks.

Personally, I think both scenarios are unlikely. Alex Salmond strikes me as someone with plenty of political hunger left in his belly – and he will fancy his chances in 2016 of a historic hat-trick. The polls do not indicate that the SNP will be crushed in the referendum.

Absent a landslide defeat, there is no reason to think that the First Minister would be unseated by his own party members. The problem in today’s SNP is not that there is too much criticism of the First Minister, but that there is too little.

The Scottish National Party stands for two things, only one of which will have been defeated in the event of a No vote. The SNP stands for independence, of course, but it also stands more generally for acting in and defending (what the party perceives to be) Scotland’s interests. It was its success in this, and not because of the SNP policy on independence, that it won an overall majority at Holyrood in 2011.

Scots see in the SNP leader an effective champion for Scotland and this – not his constitutional politics – is what they like about him. The only English politician able at the moment to play a similar role is Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. He defends and celebrates London’s interests, nationally and internationally, in much the same way that the First Minister does for Scotland. Thus a Tory mayor is able to win office in Labour London, as a Nationalist First Minister has in unionist Scotland.

Each of the parties in the No camp has published proposals outlining the ways in which they would like to see Scotland’s constitutional position develop after a No vote. The only major party not to have done this is the SNP. It is unrealistic to expect it to do so before the referendum – it can hardly explain how it would like to see devolution taken forward while campaigning to end it.

But it will be incumbent upon the SNP immediately after any No vote to answer the question that each of the unionist parties has addressed: what next? Independence having been defeated, what does the Scottish National Party now advocate as being in Scotland’s best interests?

This is another reason, incidentally, why I think Salmond is likely to remain in post after a No vote: he is such a pragmatist that he would find it relatively easy to move his party on to fresh terrain. And it is essential that it does move on to fresh terrain.

The Edinburgh Agreement makes it clear that whatever happens on 18 September determines the matter. If there is a Yes vote, there is no going back. Likewise, if there is a No vote. It will be no good for the SNP to insist on “one more push” to independence. A No vote takes independence off the table.

I fervently hope that the SNP does address the question “what next?” as soon as the referendum is over, and that it does so in the constructive and open-minded manner in which at least the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have approached the matter. It is unfortunate that the Scottish Labour Party’s offerings are not so constructive, but if it has chosen to sit out the conversation about where Scotland goes from here, so be it. It might be easier without Labour.

But it will not be easier without the SNP. Westminster has never imposed devolution on anyone that does not want it. The Scottish Tories and the Lib Dems have said that the Scottish Parliament should become responsible for income tax in Scotland.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor George Osborne are fully supportive of the Scottish Conservatives’ proposals. But Westminster will not legislate for any of this to happen unless the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament first indicate that they want it – and that means the SNP.

If there were a very narrow No win, it is easy to imagine Cameron saying on 19 September that he wants to meet Salmond as soon as possible to talk about what Scotland needs in order to ensure that the Union is never imperilled again.

But Cameron should do this on 19 September no matter how large the margin of No’s victory. The most recent polls suggest a 60-40 win for No. On a 75 per cent turn-out – and it may yet be even higher – that indicates that more than a million Scots will vote for independence. No unionist Prime Minister should allow himself to rest easy after a million of his fellow citizens have voted to leave the country and start again.

Even a big (or biggish) win for No will require magnanimity and the immediate exploration of ways in which the SNP can be included within and not excluded from decisions about where Scotland’s constitutional settlement develops from there. Devolution – even enhanced devolution – is an avowedly unionist solution to the problem of Scottish governance, and it will require no little skill and statesmanship to move the SNP into accepting a model of devolution that is designed to nurture the Union rather than to destroy it. But it can be done and, after a No vote, it would be imperative and in Scotland’s national interest that it is done.

What we will need after the referendum is not a grand convention, a Calman mark II, in which the three unionist parties hatch a joint scheme for kicking the Nationalist can further down the road. What we will need is mature political leadership from Scotland’s two governments, the one in London and the one in Edinburgh.

With their ambitious plans for further devolution, the coalition parties have shown they are ready. Let us hope the SNP will be, too: that way we can move beyond the divisions of the current campaign towards an altogether more constructive – and inclusive – conversation about Scotland’s constitutional future.

• Adam Tomkins teaches constitutional law at the University of Glasgow; he writes here in a personal capacity. Twitter @ProfTomkins