Euan McColm: No stepping down after referendum

Alex Salmon and David Cameron's heads must not roll after the referedum. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Alex Salmon and David Cameron's heads must not roll after the referedum. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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CALLS for referendum loser’s head to roll will only make aftermath worse says Euan McColm

The referendum on Scottish independence is no longer solely about the future of the United Kingdom – now it’s about the end of a political career too. Once the votes are counted, there is to be a lynching.

An orthodoxy is developing that says, depending on the result, either Prime Minister David Cameron or First Minister Alex Salmond must resign.

The wisdom is that should Scotland say Yes, then Cameron is the PM who lost the Union and his position is untenable, while if we vote No then Salmond must go.

Cameron’s aides took the step last week of briefing that the Prime Minister had no intention of resigning should the nationalists win on 18 September. This is not a subject they would have raised voluntarily. That they felt they had to spin a line is all the proof we need that there is concern within Number 10 that Cameron’s resignation is becoming the expected response to a Yes vote, that nothing but the end of his time in power will suffice.

But anything Yes can demand, No can too. If Cameron must go if Scotland votes for independence, they say, then Salmond must go if the voters reject constitutional change.

How, ask the First Minister’s opponents, can the SNP leader seriously consider remaining in power if he fails to deliver the result for which his party has campaigned for 80 years?

Politicians and campaigners from both sides of the constitutional debate have made quite a deal of the need for national unity in the aftermath of the poll. Just a couple of weeks ago, at a memorial to the late Margo MacDonald, her widower Jim Sillars told mourners that the pro-independence MSP had wanted an end to political hostilities as soon as polling booths close at 10pm on referendum day.

Margo believed there was a job to be done in uniting Scotland. It was her wish, said Jim, that politicians from each side should put their differences aside and work together in the interests of the country and its people, respecting whatever decision voters make.

As was so often the case, Margo was right. It was hugely reassuring that there appeared to be broad agreement on this.

But, already, hotheads have developed a more brutal vision of the aftermath. Not only should the loser be knocked on his back but, as he lies there, battered and bruised, the victor should stick in the knife. And then twist it.

This is predictable stuff. Politics can be a nasty business, and losers must not only lose but they must lose completely. But we should guard against the resignation of either man becoming the accepted response to the result.

This is not, after all, an episode of Game Of Thrones but a fraught political debate that demands the acceptance of the losers and the magnanimity of the winners.

If the Yes campaign wins, then many on that side of the argument will take particular pleasure from the fact that not only has Scotland chosen to go it alone but that a Westminster Tory-led government has been defeated. Non-Tory unionists will be tempted to play a game of blame.

Wise political opponents, however, will not allow their feelings to spill over into a demand for Cameron’s head.

Some Labour politicians tell me that the PM must go should Salmond win the day. But how, credibly, could the party’s leader Ed Miliband endorse such a demand?

Implicit in a call for Cameron to quit would be the view that the result of the referendum had been a catastrophe, that a huge mistake had been made.

Of course, Labour politicians will feel that, but they will also plan to stand candidates in the first general election in an independent Scotland. And to do that with any success they will have to be seen to accept – and be enthusiastic about – the decision of the Scottish people. Scottish voters are unlikely to warm to being used as weapons in a political battle over the result.

Not only that, but I wonder whether there would be much traction south of the Border for a demand for the PM to go. Would English voters really feel that Cameron should quit because he lost Scotland or would they, as I suspect, feel that, having voted Yes, Scotland should get stuffed?

And should the No campaign win, which unionist might lead the calls to have Salmond removed? That would be an ugly little campaign at a time when the interests of the country would be best served by a period of reconciliation.

Yes voters whose eyes sparkle at the thought of Cameron’s removal from office should think through the consequences of that scenario.

Should the Yes campaign win the referendum, governments north and south of the Border will immediately begin negotiations on how the break-up of the UK will happen. These would be long and complex talks. And it would be in Scotland’s interests for Cameron to remain in Downing Street during this period. He, after all, is signed up to the Edinburgh Agreement which commits both sides to working in the interests of Scotland, regardless of the result.

If Cameron is forced out then what the rest of the UK will or will not give Scotland would surely become a central part of a Tory Party leadership contest. A bruising contest to replace the PM would complicate already complex negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster governments.

The removal of Salmond in the event of a No vote would create its own problems. Should the nationalists lose, then there will be anger and frustration. Would we rather risk the escalation of tensions when the SNP leader is surely the best person to soothe those voters? Wouldn’t Scotland be better served by a period during which Salmond used his considerable authority to keep tempers from fraying too much?

Neither result in September stands to help create a particularly happy or united Scotland. There will be tensions, there will be anger.

And that’s why, no matter how delicious the evisceration of an opponent might seem, both sides should stop this stupid talk of resignations. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm